Studies over the years have proven a link between an excess of dopamine in the brain and a tendency to engage in impulsive and dangerous behaviors. This surplus dopamine has also been associated with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene, which codes for a single type of dopamine receptor called the 7R+ allele. While this genetic variation has previously been tied to issues like gambling and addiction, it can also explain a more benign compulsion, the urge to travel.
Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, said that the DRD4 gene and the consequent extra dopamine may have helped provoke prehistoric man to leave home and explore other territories in hopes of finding food, mates, and shelter. Though those survival needs are no longer at play, that biological background might have morphed into modern-day wanderlust.
While there’s obviously a combination of nature and nurture in most scientific explanations, Garcia said that DRD4 could explain why some view traveling as exciting and others deem it terrifying. J. Koji Lum, an anthropologist at Binghamton University explained this concept further to writer Kayt Sukel in her book, The Art of Risk (you can read an excerpt on the website Nomadic Matt).
“DRD4 is one gene and, of course, its contribution to any complex behavior is going to be small. But those small differences add up,” he explained. “To a certain extent, assessing risk is just running an algorithm in your head. The different genetic variants mean that algorithm is running at slightly different levels in different people. That’s where all of this comes together: people are running slightly different algorithms that help define whether or not they will take a risk. And, ultimately, over time, that one small difference in the algorithm ends up in very different lives lived.”
So, if people think you’re crazy for wanting to see the world, know that your impulse may be grounded in biology.