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Wanderlust: a Genetic Basis to a Globetrotting Fanatic

December 4, 2013

Headnote: Wanderlust is described in the Online Oxford English Dictionary as a strong desire to travel: a man/woman consumed by wanderlust (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013).

Many people dream of travelling the world, seeing places they’ve never been and experiencing different cultures. Phrases such as backpacking, gap year and globetrotting have become much a part of vocabulary, increasingly more-so since the availability and promise of cheap flights and overseas volunteer teaching placements. Humans are amongst the most curious and exploratory species that has ever lived upon earth. This drive to travel and breakthrough to unknown places can be described through genetics.

The root of all human existence is linked back to Africa: the first of our ancestors began to leave around 70,000 to 50,000 years ago (Armour et al 1996) No other species on the planet has travelled and spread across the world in the same way as humans: species usually stay in the area they have always been yet modern humans have visited and settled in every continent, country and corner of the world in just 50,000 years. Not quite so much of a long time, in earths long years of existence (Knoll, 2003).

Research into why humans like to travel and as a species have travelled so far has been focused on studying genes. A gene DRD4 is involved in dopamine levels in the brain, which is linked with motivation and behaviour (Lichter et al, 1993). A variation of this gene, DRD4-7R, is carried by an approximately 20% of the human population and is linked with restlessness and curiosity along with being a named association with ADHD (Schilling, Walsh & Yun, 2011). This restlessness can cause people to take bigger risks which includes exploring new or different places. A study by Chen (1999) found the DRD4-7r form of the gene 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. Another more recent study also reported similar findings: those who lived in cultures whose ancestors migrated out of Africa the furthest and the fastest/earliest were more likely to have the DRD4-7r gene (Dobbs, 2012). These findings suggest that this gene could be the motivation behind the yearning to travel, to move and to see the world: as it possibly did with our ancient ancestors.

Another theory behind the motivation to travel is rooted in our childhood: as children, we learn through play and imagination. Compared to most animals, and to some of our closest ancient ancestors (Neanderthals etc) we spend more time as children protected by our mothers in which we can develop our imagination. The basics of imagination is to create hypothetical scenarios and worlds which could be what is behind our fuel to travel and what makes us so inquisitive. Questions such as ‘what’s further than that border?’and ‘what’s over the other side of the sea’ are just some of the questions which drove our species to explore around the world.

In conclusion, the motivations behind travelling can be explained through our genes (DRD4-7R) and also through our imagination which is fuelled by play and childhood. Our ancestors 50,000 years ago started our journey around the world possibly through their restless genes, and passed their inquisitive nature through their generations. Even now, humans continue to explore and travel: from individuals getting a plane and exploring other continents and far away countries, to astronauts pushing further to explore space and the moon. oxford university press


Armour, J.A.L., Anttinen, T., May, C.A., Vega, E.E., Sajantila, A., Kidd, J.R., Kidd, K.K., Bertranpetit, J., Pääbo, S., & Jeffreys, A.J. (1996) Minisatellite diversity supports a recent African origin for modern humans. Nature Genetics, 13. 154–160doi:10.1038/ng0696-154

Dobbs, D. (2012). Are you an orchid or a dandelion?. New Scientist, 213(2849), 42-45.

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2009). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. HarperCollins

Knoll, A.H. (2003) Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth. New York: Princeton University Press

Lichter, J. B., Barr, C. L., Kennedy, J. L., Van Tol, H. H., Kidd, K. K., & Livak, K. J. (1993). A hypervariable segment in the human dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene. Human Molecular Genetics, 2(6), 767-773.

Schilling, C. M., Walsh, A., & Yun, I. (2011). ADHD and criminality: A primer on the genetic, neurobiological, evolutionary, and treatment literature for criminologists. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 3-11.


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  1. Reblogged this on Globetrotter in a Wheelchair and commented:
    wow – I like this!
    My urge to travel is already destined . . .

  2. Interesting hypothesis that it is rooted in our childhood in reference to our imaginations. It is defiantly a motivating factor for me, when I go to places I thought about as a kid, I get a sense of satisfaction and elation…keep that dopamine coming.

    • Lorraine Hunter permalink

      As a child my father often talked of his grandfather who sailed the coast of Queensland. He was quite obsessed with the thought of travel and adventure and acknowledged the educational aspect of travel. He passed this on to me and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

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