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The wanderlust gene

The Croft Magazine // Helena Reeds chats to us about the psychology of travel.

By Helena Reeds, Third Year, Neuroscience

The Croft Magazine // Helena Reeds chats to us about the psychology of travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put all of our lives on hold, but even when things started to get back to some sort of normality, our travel plans were still placed in limbo. It was almost as if someone had pressed one big pause button on all of our plans and has forgotten to switch it back on. In these times where we can’t travel, it has got me yearning to plan a trip away even more than usual. In fact, this got me thinking…why do humans love to travel so much? Why do we feel so much happier after a holiday? Are we hardwired to feel this way?

If you’re a bit of a nomad, then you could have a certain mutation of your dopamine receptor (DRD4), known as ‘the Wanderlust gene’

We are all inclined towards a certain type and volume of travel. Personally, I love beach holidays and wouldn’t want to travel for any longer than a month, but my housemate’s ideal trip away would be 6 months skiing in the Alps. Your preference may change a little as you age, but it’s pretty much hard-wired within us. However, If the urge to explore arises in us innately, perhaps there is something in our genome that predisposes us to this? Well, if you’re a bit of a nomad, then you could have a certain mutation of your dopamine receptor (DRD4); known as ‘the Wanderlust gene’. Ok that sounds cool, but what does this all mean…?

Dopamine is a chemical messenger in our brain that plays a huge role in how we feel pleasure and reward. The dopamine 4 receptor (the thing the chemical interacts with) is associated with risk-taking and the desire for novel experience. Several human studies have been carried out and found that people with the DRD4 mutation are more likely to explore new places and embrace adventure. Interestingly, this mutation has also been linked to human migration. A study in 2011 found that the DRD4 mutation was found significantly in populations whose ancestors migrated longer distances. However, we can’t extrapolate too much from this information. You can’t reduce the complexities of human’s exploration down to a single gene – genetics unfortunately aren’t that simple!

the brainer side of travel? | Epigram / Daisy Game

Let’s dial back the neuroscience a bit and look more at the psychological benefits of travelling. Why do we come back from travel feeling so content? Some might call it a ‘post-travel glow’. Well it’s because travel provides us with a break from the daily stressors of life. It’s literally an escape from our mundane reality and allows us to focus on our own pleasures for a while, thereby reducing the body’s level of stress hormone (cortisol). Even when we return home to our stressful lives, the new memories encoded in our brains from travelling help to maintain a calmer mindset – the post-travel ‘zen’! This is the reason that so many mindfulness guides will ask you to imagine yourself on a beach whilst meditating.

All in all, travel is great for our mental health. It helps with personal growth, appreciation of others, and boosts our mood and creativity. All of these things release more dopamine in our brain which gives us increased sensation of reward. Experiencing different cultures and meeting new people forces us to be more tolerant and flexible, thereby also increasing our empathy towards others. This will translate back to our daily lives, helping our interpersonal skills. There are so many psychological benefits to travel so if this wasn’t the sign to start planning the post-lockdown holiday, then I don’t know what is!

Featured Image: Epigram / Helena Reeds

Do you think you may have 'the wanderlust gene' ?