The wanderlust gene, is there such a thing? I believe there is no heart as restless as the traveler’s, we live in perpetual pursuit of the next adventure. Whether we are taking a day trip to explore the town over the hill to find a new hiking trail or jet setting around the globe to discover other cultures and cuisines – I for one know my gypsy soul will settle for nothing less than seeing as much of the world as I possibly can! Got wanderlust?
The word Wanderlust is defined as a strong desire for or impulse to wander or travel and explore the world. The term originates from the German words wandern (to hike) and Lust (desire). The term wander does not mean “to wander”, but “to hike.” Placing the two words together, translates to “enjoyment of hiking.” The English adopted “wanderlust” from the German, the first documented use of the word in English was in 1902 as a reflection of what was then seen as a characteristically German predilection for wandering.
The psychology behind wanderlust reflects a deep desire for self-development by experiencing the unknown, confronting unforeseen challenges, getting to know unfamiliar cultures, ways of life and behaviors. On one hand there are some people who never feel the urge to leave the house or explore, they tend to be content to stay in the city they are from, and the 360 degrees that immediately surrounds them. Then there are the people who can’t sit still, and no matter how many vacations you take your hunger to explore cannot be quenched. So what drives some of us to abandon the comforts of home and explore the world while others prefer familiar surroundings?
Is there a scientific explanation for why some of us are controlled by our wanderlust, while others would rather stay put than explore?
We live in a beautiful world, there’s always something new to see, something new to experience. According to many scientific claims, this desire to explore may be been embedded in our DNA, the inherent urge to travel can be traced back to one gene, which is a genetic derivative of the gene DRD4, and is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain. The gene itself is identified as DRD4-7R, which has been labeled the “wanderlust gene,” because for the most part it’s correlated with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness. Dopamine has been known to be called the “pleasure” chemical. Scientists have discovered that having above average levels of dopamine in certain parts of the brain can lead to more impulsive, risky behaviors. Some people have all that extra dopamine because they possess a specific variant of the DRD4 gene, a gene that codes for a single type of dopamine receptor, called the 7R+ allele.
That being said, biology never works alone we are also effected by environmental factors which can tweak our genes in many interesting ways.
Apparently this gene is only possessed by about 20 percent of the population, but in regions of the globe where travel has been more encouraged in its past there is a much higher prevalence for one to have this embedded in their DNA. Numerous studies have linked the 7R+ variant to a wide range of behaviors – some good and some not so good. A study by David Dobbs of National Geographic supported these findings and provided reason not to just draw the link to curiosity and restlessness, but specifically a passion for travel. According to Dobbs, the mutant form of the DRD4 gene, 7r, results in people who are “more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities,” he went on to say that bearers of this gene, “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.” Dobbs conducted an additional study a little over a decade later, which supports the notion that 7r, in conjunction with a second genetic variant (2r), “tends to be found more frequently than you would expect by chance in populations whose ancestors migrated longer distances after they moved out of Africa.”
Later another study was done by Kenneth Kidd of Yale University who said it’s a little more complicated than others might be alluding to. According to Kidd he claimed, genetics don’t work that way, “You just can’t reduce something as complex as human exploration to a single gene.” Because of Kidd’s claims, Dobbs decided to consult with evolutionary geneticist Jim Noonan to gain a better understanding into this topic. Dobbs quotes Noonan stating how the human ability to explore rests within the function of two systems: limbs and brains. Noonan explained to Dobbs how each species has a different, unique set of variances within these two systems, which allows them to be predisposed to different behaviors. Another study came out later by Garret LoPorto of Huffington Post. He said this gene may carry a lot of positive, exploratory, character traits it also might be linked with general Neanderthalic behavior. Many studies have been conducted on this topic which you can easily find by Googling “the wanderlust gene” or DRD4-7R.
“People talk about DRD4 in terms of risk-taking a lot. But there’s been a push to change that. Because we don’t know if it’s really about taking risks per se, or about putting yourself in a situation where you can interact with new stimuli and environments, which stimulates the nervous system in a particular way,” says Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute.
Travel gives us the opportunity to engage with new experiences, to get out and explore, to submerge ourselves into the unknown, to push ourselves to new limits so we can connect on a deeper level. How amazing is it that new landscapes and foreign cultures are just one plane ride away?! We all have different dreams, goals and desires and for some of us the dream would be to strap on a backpack and explore all the nooks and cranny’s of this lovely earth and for others they are perfectly content in the environment they know and being less risk adverse. Maybe these desires are written in our genetic code, maybe its due to the environment we grew up in, or maybe we are just hungry for change. For me I would rather accumulate experiences rather than things, some of us were just born to travel!