This past weekend I travelled to Tromsø, Norway at 70 degrees north, in the arctic circle, just to see the northern lights (or more scientifically, the aurora borealis!). My excitement over this natural phenomenon and the Nordic culture got me thinking. Every day another friend is posting on Instagram or Facebook about their travels, with idyllic ocean hues or mountain views. We can’t escape it; we are the generation obsessed with wanderlust, whether it be constant weekend mini-breaks or months of ongoing adventure. But why is that we love to travel so much? Is it just that we can, with thousands of flights to places like Rome going cheaper than the cost of daily commute? Or is it something more – something within us that exploring the world fulfils?
Travelling nearly anywhere today is fairly simple, and more importantly cheap. Hostels are popping up all over the world, and the creation of Airbnb provides the option of staying on a budget or splashing out on a luxury home – whatever you want! Since 2005 the numbers of people flying has almost doubled from just over 2 billion to just under 4 in 2016, with the FAA estimates putting over 5000 aircrafts in the sky at any given time and over 26,000 passenger flights a day. Budget airlines like Ryan-air, Easy Jet, or Norwegian are becoming increasingly popular, and websites like Skyscanner are making it even easy to navigate your way to the cheapest travel options. According to Skyscanner right now, you can get return tickets for December from the UK to Oslo, Warsaw, Stockholm, Milan and Venice, and across Germany for less than £20. Although these tickets have their downsides like being non-refundable or changeable, they are easy and cheap to book – checking off most people’s main travel priorities.
In a world where everyone appears to be constantly travelling, it’s even harder to ignore with online media in the form of vlogs, blogs and social platforms like Instagram. Dileep and colleagues (2013) studied the significant impact of exposure to the internet and media had on tourism and travellers; the simple conclusion seems that the more we see adverts and others globetrotting, we feel the need to do the same. Instagram, an internet application now worth over $1 billion, is just one form, although likely the most powerful, of social media which fuels the selfie and obsessive self-representation culture common in younger people today, including myself. The acknowledgement from a mass audience and follower-base has created mini-celebrities of sorts with people posing and rehearsing for the perfect shot to gain Instafame. Amongst the colourful foods, outgoing fashion and pristine make up, an important element of a popular Instagram accounts is the location (Marwick 2015), or more accurately, the vacation. The stream of photos emulates a life of glamorous travel to the tropical beaches of Hawaii, the harsh wilderness of Iceland, or the vibrant cities like New York. The stream of photos shows anything but the mundane. Is it this online temptation and accidental advertisement which makes us all want to travel so much nowadays?
As well as the more obvious health spas and retreats, it could be said that the restorative element of being in a natural environment should not be underestimated, with Moscardo (2015) exploring the benefits of escaping hectic and stressful day-to-day life. The freedom, spontaneity and sometimes solitude of travelling, whether solo (Mehmetoglu et al. 2010) or not, can simultaneously allow travellers to get to know the ‘other’ through diverse cultural experiences, whilst also exploring one’s self. Everyone has heard the phase ‘I want to find myself’, or something along those lines, from people heading off on their gap year or extended travels.
But, is there a biological explanation for why we humans love to travel? And are these social factors just providing the encouragement and ease of exploration? Dopamine in the brain is often associated with appetitive behaviour, or equated with rewarding and pleasurable stimuli (activities), whereas excess dopamine appears correlated with impulsive behaviours. The specific variant in the DRD4 gene (which codes for one specific type of dopamine receptor called 7R+ allele) has repeatedly been associated with Novelty Seeking (NS). NS is most obviously exhibited through impulsive, dangerous and addictive behaviours like gambling and substance abuse. However, NS could be similarly associated with the ‘exciting’, yet less dangerous activity of… travel!
Researchers from the Universities of Indiana, California and Binghampton have placed the DRD4 gene in an evolutionary role of prehistoric dispersal and migration. Early human, or Homo sapien, populations dispersed across swathes of land out of Africa, eastward into Asia and further to the Americas and Australasia, and north-westerly into Europe. Whichever migration model you abide by, species dispersal is undeniable. In a time and environment when travelling was risky, the DRD4 gene (and the varying frequency of the 7R allele repeat) potentially played a vital role in encouraging our successful ancestors to explore new territories in the hunt for more and better food, shelter and mate options. The genetic variation of DRD4 could similarly explain the variation in human reactions to risk; why it induces terror in some, and excitement in others. Biologically, this gene and allele variation remains, but we no longer need it, or travelling, for survival. So, is this why we crave exploration and travel; not for survival now, but for the thrill-seeker genetically encoded within us?
Like with any human behaviour, there is likely a combination of nature and nurture factors involved. In this case, nurture stems from an environment and society where adventure is accessible, advertised and encouraged, and nature stems from a lasting survivalist portion of our genetic code. This combination could mean that, not only do we humans love to travel, but sometimes we may really need to. What a great excuse to book my next holiday!
All photographs included here are my own.
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