Are you one of those people who are constantly planning their next adventure, counting down the days until you take off again and feeling restless when they seem too many? Chances are you have what scientists have termed the ‘wanderlust gene’.
To understand this gene, first we need to delve into some basic neurochemistry. You’ve heard of dopamine, right? The little neurotransmitter that has been linked to everything from pleasure to addiction and Parkinson’s disease? If you’re wondering how one chemical can be responsible for such a vast range of outcomes, the important thing to note is that it’s the parts of our brains which receive dopamine that determine its effects.
When it comes to wanderlust, it’s the D2 family of receptors that are relevant thanks to their mechanics of reward and reinforcement. Allow us to illustrate. When we expect or receive a reward (order or bite into a slice of pizza for example), a part of our brain called the ventral tegmental sends dopamine along a pathway to the D2 receptors, which tell our brain whatever we just experienced is worth getting more of, motivating us to seek it out again and again. Dopamine also tends to lift our mood when it moves about like this, further reinforcing the act of eating pizza, or whatever rewarding activity we’re anticipating or taking part in.
It follows then that those of us who associate travel with rewarding experiences, such as discovering beautiful places, eating delicious foods and spending days out of the office, are motivated on a chemical level to travel more often.
Science has recently added more meat to this theory, discovering that the gene which controls dopamine (named DRD4, for anyone wondering) has a specific variation (DRD4-7r) correlated with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the ‘wanderlust gene’.
Estimated to be present in around 20% of the population, this variation results in individuals who are more likely to take risks, explore new places, ideas, foods and relationships. David Dobbs of National Geographic surmises that bearers of this gene “generally embrace movement, change and adventure.”
Sound like you?
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While, like all emerging theories, the idea of a ‘wanderlust gene’ needs to be applied conservatively (remembering that the same genes can be expressed differently as a result of environmental influences and that having the urge to travel doesn’t negate needing the means), something working in its favour is the discovery that it has a much higher prevalence in regions of the globe where populations have a history of travelling, suggesting a logical interplay of nature and nurture.
At any rate, it seems – in some cases at least – the urge to travel is an inherent one, giving some of us a deeper layer of motivation for constantly jetting off around the globe.
In the words of the great Robert Louis Stevenson (who we like to think possessed the gene), “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Wanderlust: why fight it?