Why We Travel
Maybe It's In The Genes
I love the smell of new places. Long since returning from a trip to Sri Lanka, I can still recall the myriad of scents dancing together: blossoming jasmine, petrol fumes, cow dung, and burning incense, all mixed together with the intoxicating bouquet of butter naan and steaming chai.
Several years ago in a job interview, the hiring manager raised the topic of travel (I had an upcoming trip that I disclosed in my cover letter).
“So, I see you’re really into travel,” he said.
I replied, “Yeah, I’d say I have the bug. I try to spend at least three weeks a year some place different. What about you?”
“Ah, I have a place in Kauai that I go every year. Some ski trips to Tahoe, that’s about it. So, where are you off to in a couple weeks?”
“Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand,” I replied.
“Interesting, sounds cool, are you traveling with some buddies?” he asked.
“No, I’m just going by myself,” I said.
He looked confused. “You’re traveling for three weeks alone? Do you know where you’re staying? How are you going to get around?”
Questions flew faster and faster. I interrupted, “Ummm. No, I’m just going to figure it out when I get there.”
As the conversation and inquires continued to unfold about travel details (of which I didn’t have very precise answers because I hadn’t done any planning for this particular trip) I could tell he was getting a little uneasy. I started thinking that this guy must think I’m nuts.
What gives some of us the urge to visit a place in search of a necessary level of discomfort, while others seek out the shores of the familiar? What if our lust to wander isn’t just a subconscious itch we are urged to scratch? What if we are genetically predisposed to desire to see new things? What if our genes are the triggers of curiosities that only new experiences can satisfy? Is there a scientific explanation why some of us are self-diagnosed with the travel bug, while others are happiest in places they are already accustomed?
As it turns out, the answer may lie, at least partially, in our DNA.
According to National Geographic, the reason why some humans like to travel, and why we as a species have travelled such long distances over our history, is a gene called DRD4. This gene directly influences the dopamine levels in our brains. Dopamine is a brain chemical that some have nicknamed, “happy juice.” One of the primary pillars of dopamine is to nudge us towards things that bring us pleasure. When we experience something we like, whether a type of food, a potential mate, or a favorite song, we get a big hit of dopamine. After a kick of dopamine, we seek out actions to get more. The body asks to repeat whatever action we did again and again.
Bringing this back to adventure and exploration, there is a mutation with this dopamine-impacting gene. 20% of the the human population have a variation of the DRD4 gene called DRD4-7R. This is associated with higher potential dopamine levels, restlessness and curiosity. Numerous studies have linked the 7R variant to a wide range of extreme behaviors. People with this variant are more likely to take bigger financial risks, be sexually promiscuous, and become addicted to drugs and alcohol. But people with DRD4-7R are also more likely to want to travel to faraway places.
What is most interesting to me is the fact that 7R may have played a pivotal role in the diaspora of our species, helping us migrate out of Africa to inhabit other parts of the globe. The added dopamine may have helped propel prehistoric homosapiens to venture further, discover new places to live, and find new geographies for mates and resources.
There is a lot about 7R that we do not know. Are those with 7R more comfortable around strange new smells and unfamiliar flavors? Changes of culture and scenery? A lack of planning and chaos?
Whether you suspect you are a 7R or not, you don’t have to travel across the world to collect new experiences - you can find them in your own neighborhoods and cities. With Sidewalk’s walking guides, you don’t have to be far away to feel far away. You will experience the stories and insights in your own city that will give you those same dopamine hits as you would if you were in a new country. Get lost on streets you’ve never walked before. Taste the local flavors of a new neighborhood. Examine the buildings, statues, and churches that you walk past every day and learn why they are there, and what the stories are behind them. Chat with a stranger, there is so much to learn from the local sitting at the barstool next to you.
You can find beautiful and amazing things right where you are, let Sidewalk help you unlock them.
Keep learning. Keep discovering. Keep exploring. Stay curious! After all, you never know when you will need to tell an unforgettable story at a job interview.