At the moment, traveling comes with a whole new set of considerations and limitations. For many, travel is on pause. For some, the desire to get out and travel feels innate — a chemically charged drive to explore. Does science have an answer for why that is? Perhaps.
Back in 2016, lots of discussions circulated the internet about DRD4-7R — what writers have called the “wanderlust gene.” Each suggested that 7R, a variation of the gene DRD4, which affects dopamine levels (a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward), exists in 20 percent of the human population. Researchers found a link “with restlessness and curiosity,” which can thrust people into taking bigger risks, including exploring and experiencing new places.
Dawn Maslar, a biologist who has studied the effects of dopamine and other hormones in regard to our brain, believes there is a definite connection between the gene and travel. She shared her thoughts with Condé Nast Traveler saying, “The wanderlust gene is so powerful. It appears that the DRD4 gene is more predominant in the traveling type of person.”
Wanderluster vs. Nomad
Some scientists have their doubts that the why behind a concept as complex as human travel can be simplified down to a single gene mutation but there’s no question that some exploratory personality attributes have a sure connection to 7R.
David Dobbs of National Geographic took this into consideration — concluding that the 7R mutation of DRD4 results in people who are “more likely to take risks,” and “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.” Dobbs found that when compared to populations who have mostly stayed in the same region, those with a record of relocating are more likely to carry the 7R gene.
The first large genetic study to discover this phenomenon was led at the University of California, Irvine in 1999. Here, researchers found 7R to be more common in present-day migratory cultures than in settled ones. The difference between having wanderlust and an insatiable need to experience new places is dependent on being nomadic. In considering this, we may be able to call the DRD4-7R gene that of nomads — which explains why Dobbs has deemed it the “Restless Gene.”
How it really works
At a molecular level, DRD4 is a dopamine gene that plays a critical role in reward and reinforcement learning within the human brain. This is what many of us will associate with feelings of pleasure and motivation. Richard P. Ebstein, a professor of psychology at the National University in Singapore, was responsible for connecting the dots between pleasure and adventure seeking — explaining it as that “warm glow” we get when we feel good.
Robert Moyzis, a biological chemistry professor at UC Irvine, explained in a piece originally published for Map Happy that those with the longer (seven-repeat) allele of DRD4 have a “blunted” type of the dopamine receptor. This means that these individuals require more dopamine in order to simply experience that same warm, happy feeling.
After learning more about this phenomenon in its entirety, I began to consider whether this gene may be a part of my own DNA. As a child, I remember begging my parents to send me away for high school for no reason other than wanting to explore a new place. When I was able to, I left New York for college, circumnavigated the globe with Semester at Sea, and eventually moved away to Mumbai following graduation. There is a force that pulls me towards these distant experiences and in time it begs for more change in order to refill that warm glow which Ebstein describes.
It seems that DRD4-7R is a genetic inclination which likely has some mark of influence on those who feel the pull to live out their days on a sailboat or uproot their lives to move thousands of miles away from home, like I did.
So, is it in your DNA?
Genovate, a genetrack biolab, now offers a Wanderlust Gene Test to determine whether it’s really in your DNA or if you’ve simply learned to love exploring. Maybe by determining whether this trait is truly a part of us, we will be better suited to develop our lives to allow for more reward from external sources and from our environment. Akin to bringing human design work into the workplace, understanding our capacity and need for movement has the potential to help further develop ourselves professionally, as well as emotionally.
With digital nomadism on the rise and company culture continuing to shift towards the remote workforce, those carrying the nomad gene are certainly set up for success. But whether your urge to explore is rooted in the legacy of your ancestors or more simply learned through a lifetime of psychological programming, one thing rings true — if you’re feeling the desire to have new experiences, it’s something worth pursuing for your wellbeing.
Ariana Dickson is a freelance writer, creative and influencer marketing guru. After living in Mumbai, India for two years, she’s now tapping into the nomadic lifestyle and working remotely — staying true to her love for traveling, near and far. Connect with her on Instagram at @arianadickson to follow her perpetual wanderings or talk about all things travel, food and wellness.