Do you have itchy feet? Or a severe case of wanderlust? Science may have come up with an explanation as to why some people are always looking for the next exotic adventure while others are content to have a few beers in the local pub.
Everyone has different interests. For some it’s socialising, watching movies or reading books, for others it’s playing sports or computer games, while sometimes it’s a mixture of all of the above, with some nice holidays thrown in. However, some people become so obsessed with travel that it takes over their life and leads to years on the road without ever really settling down.
Some people thrive on being out of their comfort zone, while others find it uncomfortable and terrifying. But if you’re one of those people who have an unquenchable wanderlust and urge to explore, recent studies suggest that the cause might be down to your genes.
It’s all to do with levels of the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine in the brain, an excess of which has long been tied to impulsive behaviour and risk taking, such as exploring new places, ideas, activities and relationships. While this was previously linked to addictive issues such as gambling and drug abuse, it also explains a more benign compulsion – the ‘need’ to travel and have adventures.
The gene scientists have pin-pointed is a variant of DRD4-7R, called the 7R+ allele, which produces plentiful amounts of excess dopamine in those that possess it. Although nowadays the gene can be responsible for both positive and negative behaviour, it may also play an interesting role in our evolution.
Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute states that the 7R+ variant would have been beneficial to our ancient ancestors during the first great migrations out of Africa and across the globe. All the extra dopamine would have motivated prehistoric man to explore new territories and take risks, in search of mates, food and shelter. Thankfully for most of us alive today, that need to venture has morphed into a desire to travel and explore.
The gene isn’t as common as you might expect, with only around 20% of the population carrying it, although this number increases in populations where travel has long been a part of life. One interesting study with the tribesmen of the African ‘Ariaal’ tribe showed the possession of DRD4-7R thrived when they were allowed to be nomads, but diminished when they were forced to only live in one spot. The rise of civilisation meant a more sedentary lifestyle for most, and it’s only recently that so many people across the globe are finding the means to travel for pleasure.
As is always the case, this one gene is only part of the story, and it’s obviously a mixture of nature and nurture that combine to create individual personalities. Something as complex as human exploration can’t be reduced to a single gene, but those small genetic differences add up, and it definitely goes someway to explaining why some of us find travel so alluring.
So next time someone tells you they’re quitting a well paid job to cycle across Africa for a year, or selling their house and moving to Madagascar, don’t judge them as completely crazy. It might just be an unavoidable consequence of their DNA.