Wanderlust Gene: Understanding Our Desire to Explore

By
Shanna Lindinger
|
April 12, 2024

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Have you ever felt an irresistible pull towards the unknown?

An inexplicable desire to explore far-off lands and immerse yourself in new cultures?

Anyone feel the pull of digital nomad life yet? Wonder why you feel so drawn to working remotely. For many of us, the urge to travel is almost instinctual.

(The pull is strong with this one - just saying.) 

But what lies beneath this thirst for adventure? There are recent scientific findings that suggest that our wanderlust may be more than just a personal inclination—it could be embedded in our very DNA.

Personal Encounters with the Call of the Wild

This feeling was most evident for me with the pandemic. As a resident of South Africa during that time, the limitations on travel were clear and restrictive.

This experience heightened my awareness to what felt like a deep inner yearning to explore. The more I was confined, the stronger the desire to break away and venture into the unknown grew. Anthony Bourdain, with his relentless pursuit of Parts Unknown, often comes to mind as a kindred spirit in this quest for discovery.

Like many, I often find myself daydreaming about unknown foods to taste and uncharted paths to tread.  

Land Rover driving through the desert, a sunset haze behind them.

The Science Behind Our Wanderlust

At the heart of this exploratory drive is a gene known as DRD4. It's variant, however, is the specific focus for us, DRD4-7R.

This gene is a dopamine receptor and plays a crucial role in our brain's response to new experiences.

Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and excitement, is controlled by this gene. Interestingly, people with the DRD4-7R mutation have a lower sensitivity to dopamine, which prompts them to seek out more adventurous experiences to gain the same level of excitement as others might find in simpler pleasures.  

DNA wanderlust gene test kit image

The Wanderlust Gene: A Historical Perspective

This genetic trait is not just a modern phenomenon. Research by UC Irvine professors Robert Moyzis and Chuansheng Chen indicates that the DRD4-7R gene emerged during the human exodus from Africa over 30,000 years ago. It is more prevalent in societies whose ancestors traveled greater distances from their African origins. David Dobbs, in his National Geographic article "Restless Genes," notes that this gene fosters risk-taking and exploration, traits vital for human migration and success.


The need to travel is in my system, perhaps even in my blood. - Becca Talbot

Beyond Genetics: A Complex Tapestry of Exploration

However, the story of human exploration is not solely written in our genes. Kenneth Kidd from Yale University cautions against oversimplifying the role of genetics in human behavior. Our desire to explore stems from a complex interplay of genetic, cultural, and personal factors. Even the physical attributes that distinguish us from our primate ancestors – like our ability to walk long distances and our advanced brain development – play a role in our exploratory nature.

Boat on the water, Balos Beach, Griechenland

A Diverse Spectrum of Wanderers

It's important to recognize that the urge to travel varies widely among individuals. While some may feel an innate pull towards the unknown, others might find contentment in the familiarity of their surroundings. This diversity in our inclinations underscores the unique tapestry of human experiences and preferences.

Concluding Thoughts: Embracing Our Inner Explorer

Whether fueled by a genetic predisposition or a personal choice, the allure of travel and exploration is an undeniable part of the human experience. As we consider our own reasons for travel, it's worth pondering the intricate blend of factors that drive our wanderlust. So, as you plan your next adventure, whether it's a journey across continents or a simple road trip, remember that the urge to explore is a fundamental part of who we are.

FAQ 

1. How prevalent is the DRD4-7R gene variant in the population globally, and are there significant differences in its prevalence between different ethnic or geographical groups?

The DRD4-7R gene variant's prevalence is not uniform globally; certain populations exhibit higher frequencies, suggesting that environmental factors or historical migration patterns may influence its distribution.

2. What are the specific types of adventurous behaviors or traits associated with individuals possessing the DRD4-7R gene variant, beyond a general desire for travel?

People with the DRD4-7R variant may exhibit adventurous behaviors like a strong urge for exploring new places, engaging in extreme sports, or pursuing creative and innovative activities that require thinking outside the box.

3. Are there any known negative consequences or challenges associated with having the DRD4-7R gene variant, such as increased risk-taking behavior that could lead to harm?

Having the DRD4-7R gene variant can lead to challenges, such as an increased likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behaviors that might result in negative consequences, including impulsivity and a potential for addiction.

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