Odysseus circling the islands of the Aegean. Marco Polo following the Silk Road down into a secret kingdom of unimaginable wealth. Ernest Hemingway penning his novels from self-exile in Paris, Cuba and Spain. What is it that, almost inexplicably, drives some of us to wander so far from home? For these legendary travelers, perhaps it was what some researchers have dubbed “the wanderlust gene,” a possibly genetic predisposition to seek out the new and the novel at the expense of the settled and the safe. And if you’re one of those people who always seems to yearn for anywhere but here, who knows – perhaps you’ve got that traveling gene, too.

Study Finds Link Between Gene and Migratory Past

genesstudy conducted in 1999 by University of California-Irvine researcher Chuansheng Chen found this so-called “wanderlust gene” to be more common among cultures with a history of migration. Working off the assumption that all human life originated in Africa, the study indicates that those populations that migrated furthest from Africa, or those among the first waves to migrate away, have a higher prevalence of the gene, which is linked to curiosity and restlessness, says Elite Daily author Dan Scotti. Could this gene be the reason that, of all the species on Earth, only humankind truly explores?

Today, about 20 percent of us possess the gene, according to The National Geographic’s David Dobbs. Not a huge number, but possibly enough to explain those folks who always seem to be jet setting somewhere. The ones who just can’t seem to settle down in one spot, the ones who live to travel.

Does Dopamine Drive Us to Distant Lands?

1mActually known as DRD4-7R, “the wanderlust gene” as it’s more romantically known is a variation of the gene DRD4, a gene which has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine. For those inclined to science, there’s more detail on that here, in an excellent Huffington Post article – but essentially, dopamine is the stuff that makes you feel happy.

Dopamine is released in the brain in “reward” for certain behaviors, so it’s strongly related to motivation and pleasure. The behavior in question could be eating, it could be exercising, it could be taking a cute new love interest out on a date – and, especially for people with the “wanderlust gene,” it could be traveling. For folks with the DRD4-7R mutation, it takes more dopamine to get that warm, fuzzy feeling. So they may be more inclined to adventurous, novelty-seeking, dare we say even risky, behavior.

Like backpacking the Alps the summer before college starts. Or booking a one-way flight to take an English-teaching job in Thailand. Or stocking up on the sunscreen and volunteering as a shovel hand at an archaeological dig in Turkey. If any one of these ideas sound tempting to you, or even if you’re just living vicariously through Anthony Bourdain and the Travel Channel for now but could have your bags packed and your passport in hand at a moment’s notice should the opportunity arise, well then you might just have to chalk it up to good old DRD4-7R. The sights, the sounds, the stimulation of anywhere but here might just be what it takes to rev up the dopamine in that brain of yours.

To Migrate or Not to Migrate: A Myriad of Reasons 

2mOf course, nothing is ever so simple or easily generalized as that, geneticists are quick to remind us. Whether or not we travel, as an individual or as a population, has a lot more behind it than a single gene. One single gene can only play so much of a part among the many variables of our DNA, and we also can’t forget the importance of upbringing and experience. Nature vs. nurture, if you will. History also tells us that populations of people are driven to migrate for a whole host of reasons weightier than seeking that next dopamine high.

Furthermore, as this Huffington Post article points out, the higher presence of a “wanderlust gene” in a population doesn’t, by default, make the gene their impetus for migration. It’s the old chicken vs. egg question. Did they migrate because of the gene, or do they have the gene because they migrated? In other words, did that culture have a high prevalence of DRD4-7R that made them wander from the cradle of civilization, or did they wander away for other reasons, into circumstances which enabled those with the gene to better survive and reproduce compared to those without it?

Were You Born to Wander?

3mWhile science has not yet come up with the answers for these kinds of questions, here’s what we say in the meantime: Travel! If you feel you were born to see the world, by all means see it. If you need an excuse to book that flight Hokkaido, take that internship in Argentina or spend that gap year really experiencing the world before college, go ahead and point your finger at DRD4-7R. Because who knows, maybe you do have the wanderlust gene in all its glory, and maybe it’s destined to drive you faraway shores full of colorful people and undreamt of adventures that will change your life.


By: Vincent Stokes