The Wanderlust Gene: Could It Explain Your Love of Travel?

At age 20, I had never been on a plane — but by the age of 30, I had visited a dozen countries. Since then, I have spent at least two months of every year on the road, and structured my work life not only to support travel, but to be travel.

Meanwhile, my brother once traveled on an around-the-world fare and nearly stayed Down Under before a troubled mountain hike forced him home to recuperate. Where did a couple of beach town kids get the urge to roam so extensively and continuously?

senior couple with map

When I was 10, my father, a police officer who was anything but a hippie vagabond, converted a van to have a shower, sink, stove and sleeping space for four, and my family spent the next decade rolling up and down the East Coast of the U.S. So maybe my brother and I caught the traveling bug from our parents — which genetic science suggests might be possible. Turns out there’s a so-called “wanderlust gene” that might have been passed down by our ancestors — and if you’re reading this, you might have it too.

If you love to travel, it’s possible that you have a certain mutation of dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4), which could be contributing to your wanderlust.

National Geographic cites multiple studies showing that migratory populations are more likely to have certain variants of DRD4 than more sedentary populations. The D4 receptor is tied to risk-taking and the need for new stimulus, which may explain why the same variant of the gene that’s common in migratory populations also seems to be tied to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here is a very readable review of the research on the topic. According to this source, the gene variant occurs in less than 1 percent of some populations but more than 70 percent in others, with a strong correlation to long histories of migration.

Could a gene tied to migration and novelty-seeking help explain why some of us love to travel? It makes some sense: Get a gene firing that makes someone want to do new things, see new things, try new things and be new places, and you could end up with a pretty serious traveler.

Going back some generations, my father’s ancestors were fishermen and pirates, moving around trying to capture and take aboard riches of fish and unsuspecting outsiders wherever they could. Certainly those folks were strong candidates for the DRD4 variants, which might have been passed on to me.

Of course, it’s unlikely that a single gene is wholly responsible for a traveler’s wanderlust; other genetic and environmental factors are almost certainly at play. But there is evidence all around us (both scientific and commonsensical) that there’s something innate in us that spurs us to migrate. The human race has ranged over Earth in a way that no other species has in the history of the planet, so it would not be surprising if there is something in our genetic makeup that inspires us to be on the move — even if it’s probably not a single travel gene.

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There are any number of other behavioral traits that are thought to be genetically caused; one example is whether you are a morning person or a night person. Recent genetic research has found 15 regions of the human genome that appear to be linked to making someone a morning person.

Just as you’re unlikely to turn into a night owl after a lifetime of waking up early, the urge to travel is unlikely to go away once you’ve discovered it in yourself; you’re either wired for travel, or you’re not. So when a family member without a passport advised a hardcore traveler to go to the Morocco pavilion of Epcot instead of going to actual Morocco because it would be “safer” (which made our list of The Worst Travel Advice We’ve Ever Seen), it might have been that both were expressing their genetic inclinations perfectly.

traveler with camera

An interesting finding in the circadian rhythm studies is that being a morning person or a night person appears to be what is called a “continuous trait,” much like height; that is, the range of expression of the trait across the species, or even within a family, can vary considerably.

Just like some folks are tall and others short, and everyone else falls somewhere in between, the same is true for sleep habits: some of us are strictly morning people, others truly night people, and everyone else falls along a spectrum between the extremes.

The research is not as deep, so it’s not yet clear why the same effect appears to be in play when it comes to wanderlust. Could our genes alone explain why some folks like to travel a lot but always return home, while others stay on the road indefinitely or even live in a foreign country? Could DNA explain why many expats seem puzzled by those who don’t want to retire abroad, while some homebodies live in one place for decades and seem genetically inclined to sit tight?

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We may all be inclined toward a certain type and amount of travel. Your set point may drift a little one way or the other, and may change as you get older (the sleep study noted that older folks are more likely to be morning people than those under age 30), but overall we are pretty hard-wired.

This has implications for the frequency and type of travel that you do, and how you like to spend your days on the road; here are some thoughts on how to embrace your own travel inclinations.

– Accept that travel is an important part of your life, and that it’s not likely to change too much. You may find yourself choosing to take a vacation over buying a new TV or changing careers to prioritize traveling — and that’s okay.

– Realize that your traveling companions may not quite have the same innate drive that you do; they may be more or less adventurous, or have different reasons for traveling. Choose your trip companions wisely because you aren’t going to change their hard-wired preferences.

– Know that if you are one of those people who starts checking flight prices for your next trip the day before you fly home from your current trip, there might not be a lot you can do about it: It’s in your genes.

Do you feel as though you’re hard-wired to travel? Share your take in the comments!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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