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The Wanderlust Gene: Why Some People Are Born To Travel

There are some people who never feel the urge to leave the house. They're content to stay in the city they came from, the couch they sit on, and the 360 degrees that immediately surround them.

Then there's the rest of us: the people who can't sit still, perhaps meditate to Anthony Bourdain, and always keep their passports on them – just in case.

Whether you call it wanderlust, a love of travel or regular old curiosity – the fact remains the same: Your hunger to explore simply cannot be quenched, no matter how many vacations or journeys you take.

For you, there's always something new to see, something different than you're used to. You enjoy day trips, but you also realize there's only so much you can see in 24 hours. You're into one-way flights and trips without a destination.

Destinations require plans, and you're not into the whole planning thing. Plans insinuate an underlying purpose, and from your experience, traveling without one always leads to more excitement.

You've been this way for as long as you can remember – which probably dates back to your first few trips growing up, boarding that plane to Disney World every few winters, as a child.

According to recent scientific claims, it may have been embedded in your DNA, even before that.

As told on one psychology blog, the inherent urge to travel can be traced back to one gene, which is a genetic derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain.

The gene itself, which is identified as DRD4-7R, has been dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its correlation with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, for the most part.

In reality, however, those who carry this genetic information typically share one common theme, a history of traveling.

The gene is not all too common; in fact, it's only possessed by about 20 percent of the population. Having said that, there is a much higher prevalence of this gene in regions of the globe where travel has been encouraged in its past.

Assuming that all forms of human life originated in Africa, Chaunsheng Chen, who conducted a study in 1999, supported the premise that “the DRD4-7r form of the gene [is] more likely to occur in modern day societies where people migrated longer differences from where we first originated in Africa many thousands of years ago.”

In short, here, Chen implies that civilizations that have diverged further from Africa, the theoretical origin of mankind, are allegedly more susceptible to being carriers of this mutant DRD4-7r gene that is linked to “curiosity and restless.”

A separate study done 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.”

In line with Chan, Dobbs also linked the 7r mutation of the DRD4 gene to human migration.

When compared to sedentary populations, or those who have stayed in the same region for most of their existence, members of present day migratory populations – those with a history of relocating, over time – tend to carry the 7r gene much more commonly.

Dobbs goes on to highlight a more statistically sound study, conducted 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.”

With that said, there still is reason to doubt this “travel gene,” at least in the mind of Kenneth Kidd of Yale University.

According to Kidd, it's a little bit more complicated than others might be alluding to. “Genetics doesn't work that way,” Kidd suggests, “You just can't reduce something as complex as human exploration to a single gene.”

In response, Dobbs consulted with evolutionary geneticist Jim Noonan to gain a better understanding of the matter.

In the most simplistic form, Dobbs quotes Noonan stating how the human ability to explore rests within the function of two systems: limbs and brains.

Noonan explains how each species has a different, unique set of variances within these two systems, which allows them to be predisposed to different behaviors.

With regard to humans, there are a few differences within our limbs and brains that can be distinguished from our most common ancestors, the apes – “such as legs and hips that let us walk long distances; clever, clever hands; and an even cleverer brain that grows far more slowly but much larger than other ape brains,” explains Dobbs.

While these differences allow us, as a species, to be better suited to travel long distances and explore creatively – our genetic makeup is still almost identical to that of apes, despite the visual differences in our anatomy.

Dobbs notes that these differences arise from a divergence in feedback cues, relayed by the developmental genes.

Following this logic, those who carry the 7r gene will also likely follow a slightly variant schedule, with regard to developmental genetics, in comparison to those who carry the regular DRD4 gene.

These differences could also, theoretically, result in a slightly different – or more curiously-suited – limb and brain composition, which could be the reason these people feel a greater urge to travel.

At the same time, it's definitely important to consider this study done by Garret LoPorto of Huffington Post.

While this mutant gene DRD4-7r might carry a ton of positive, exploratory, character traits with it – it also might be linked with general Neanderthalic behavior.

According to LoPorto, while carriers of this genetic variant might be “incredibly resourceful, pioneering, creative,” and more predisposed for wanderlust, they also might be “utterly out of control.”

So, while you might have the urge to quit work and travel for the next few months – stop and make sure you're thinking rationally. Although, like I said, traveling is always more fun without a plan.

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Dan Scotti

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