For thousands of years, the propensity that people have to tour a foreign country for the sake of exploring has been well-documented. The phenomenon of wanderlust has been equally romanticized and scientifically examined. Researchers are still searching for the key to understanding what fuels the drive in certain individuals to forego safety and familiarity for the thrill of outdoor exploration. That insatiable hunger for the next new frontier is what’s known as the “travel gene,” and if booking a flight to the next country on your bucket list is a regular ritual for you, the chances are you’ve got the travel gene in your blood too.
One high-profile study into the nature of the travel gene was conducted in 1999 by Chuansheng Chen, a researcher from the University of California-Irvine. The finding’s of Chen’s study demonstrated the possibility that the “travel gene” might manifest most strongly in those who hail from cultures with a highly migratory history.
The working theory that Chen’s study supported was that those whose ancestors migrated the furthest from the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of modern human civilization, would have the best chance of being inclined to seek out new traveling experiences whenever given the opportunity.
Naturally, the manifestation of the travel gene could be linked to more subtle behaviors that don’t always culminate in a cross-continental flight. The mere influence of the travel gene has been suggested to cause minor signs of restlessness and curiosity in those who have it, which can be satisfied by the novel experience of being exposed to unfamiliar places and sensations, like those found in outdoor exploration.
Dave Dobbs of National Geographic came to the rough approximation that just about 1 out of every 5 people has the travel gene to some extent. Though 20% doesn’t represent anything close to the majority of the human population, it can still help to explain the incurable urge that certain people have to get on the next flight to a new unseen place.
Wanderlust, Thrill-Seeking, and Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that serves as the official “reward center” of the brain, making it responsible for the short-term gratification (or lack thereof) and seeking-behavior that some individuals experience from different kinds of stimuli, such as yoga, certain foods, and outdoor exploration. In addition to the emotional response gained from exposure to a certain stimuli, dopamine is also known to be a regulator of the behaviors that people will take in an effort to move towards that stimulus on a regular basis.
Knowing the role of dopamine makes it easy to perceive the plausible relationship that it would have to an increased desire for outdoor exploration. According to researchers, dopamine is formally known as gene DRD4, which has led to the tentative consideration of the “wanderlust gene” to be referred to as DRD4-7R.
Correlation, Covariance, and Causation
The easiest way to make a statistician your enemy for life is to imply that causation, covariance, and correlation are all the same thing.
To put it simply, the challenge of tracking down the real influence of the travel gene lies in the immense challenge of controlling for the infinite number of other factors that could play a role in producing the behavior. While the implications of dopamine receptors and wanderlust being related are fun to entertain, there’s still a high margin of error to consider when factoring in all of the other possible variables that could serve to explain thrill-seeking behavior.
Sensational, declarative headlines that “X causes Y” are what lead to clicks and magazine sales, but they can’t (and oftentimes don’t) hold any water in the circles of empirical science; if such things could really be explained so plainly, then scientists wouldn’t have to study nearly as hard to gain their qualifications.
Does DRD4 directly cause the emergence of DR-D47R? Are dopamine and the presence of the travel gene more loosely related than direct indications of each other? Does the divergence from the average level of one have more influence on the average level of the other than vice versa? These are all looming questions that keep the true origin of the travel gene elusive, yet ever-tantalizing for researchers to continue hunting down.