Amazing Places

Stricken With Wanderlust? You've Got Something In Common With Early Humans.

Do you ever get an intense desire to leave it all behind, set out on the road, and explore somewhere totally foreign? That feeling is nothing new — it's most likely the same one that drove our human ancestors to migrate out of Africa. That wanderlust could have a genetic basis, and there's one gene variant that may be the culprit.


First, a quick genetics refresher: your DNA is grouped into 46 chromosomes, which are made up of discrete parts called genes. Genes create a sort of template for how to build a human body — the information for eye color goes here, the instructions on whether cilantro tastes like soap go there. That template is filled out by alleles, specific variants of genes that are responsible for the wide range of diversity you see from person to person.

The DRD4 gene is the part of the template that codes for a type of dopamine receptor. Dopamine is sometimes called the "pleasure chemical," since it's triggered by pleasurable things like good food, great music, a romantic gesture, and even drugs like cocaine. There's a specific DRD4 gene variant, or allele, called 7R+ that can give you more dopamine in certain parts of your brain than other people. Research has linked the 7R+ gene variant to a range of daring behaviors: it's associated with things like financial risk-takingsexual promiscuity, and, importantly, novelty seeking. (Like the kind of novelty you get when you go somewhere you've never been before, perhaps?)

One Piece Of The Puzzle

According to some evolutionary biologists, the 7R+ gene variant could be responsible for the exploratory drive that spread humans all over the globe. Of course, biology is way more complicated than that — environment, upbringing, and the complicated blend of other genetic influences all play a role in human behavior.

Anthropologist J. Koji Lum of Binghamton University explained it well in Kayt Sukel's book The Art of Risk: "DRD4 is one gene and, of course, its contribution to any complex behavior is going to be small. But those small differences add up. To a certain extent, assessing risk is just running an algorithm in your head. The different genetic variants mean that algorithm is running at slightly different levels in different people. That's where all of this comes together: people are running slightly different algorithms that help define whether or not they will take a risk. And, ultimately, over time, that one small difference in the algorithm ends up in very different lives lived." That could mean the difference between a heavily stamped passport and a life spent in your hometown.

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Written by Curiosity Staff February 21, 2017

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