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The Psychology of Wanderlust

Wanderlust is defined as a “strong longing for or impulse toward wandering” – or as it’s more commonly known, as a “strong desire to travel.” Many of us have that need to travel and experience new places, but is wanderlust really healthy for us?

Even though traveling and “seeing the world” has its benefits, there are some people who question others’ urge to travel. Pollet (2015), for instance, questions whether a love of traveling is really a sign of fear of commitment. She claims that people with wanderlust tend to focus more on seeing results rather than building long-term relationships. Similarly, Ruiz (2015) argues that people with wanderlust are really just bored. He says, “when looking for clarity of purpose, a journey around the world isn’t what’s needed.” He also adds, “aimlessly traveling around the world is only going to delay you from progressing.”

English writer G. K. Chesterton notoriously proclaimed that “travel narrows the mind.” He insisted that travel should combine amusement and education, but travelers are often too busy having fun that they don’t try to learn about the new cultures they’re experiencing – he refers to these travelers as “thoughtless tourists” (Chesterton, 2015).

All of these critiques can essentially be fused into one, which is that traveling is simply a means of escaping the “real world.”

Despite this, it turns out that wanderlust is quite a natural phenomenon – so much so that researchers have identified a wanderlust gene. This gene is called DRD4-7R and is a derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain.

Chen, Burton, Greenberger, and Dmitrieva (1999) found that the gene is linked to curiosity and restlessness, while a separate study done by Dobbs (2013) also linked the gene specifically to a passion for travel. According to Dobbs (2013), the mutant form of the DRD4 gene, 7R, results in people who are “more likely to take risks, explore new places, ideas, goods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities.” In other words, people with this gene “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure” (Dobbs, 2013).

While it is definitely interesting – and undoubtedly cool – that a so-called wanderlust gene exists, some people have expressed their skepticism.

Travel psychologist Dr. Michael Brein says, “It is somewhat futile in human terms to define and measure a so-called wanderlust gene, since the human condition is so complex and does not lend itself to simple measurements of complex behaviors influenced by a multitude of social, cultural, environmental, biological, and finally, psychological factors. Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate in ‘pop’ psychological terms how such a gene might conceivably manifest itself in human behavior.”

It would be silly to ignore, however, the psychological benefits to traveling. In a study that examined how travel influenced personality development in a sample of German college students, Zimmermann and Neyer (2013) found that the students who traveled tended to show an increase in openness, agreeableness, and emotional stability compared to students who did not travel. These changes in personality were attributed to the changes in people’s social networks when traveling.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have also found that traveling can increase your creativity. Crane (2015) explains that creativity is related to neuroplasticity, meaning how the brain is wired. Because neural pathways are influenced by our environment, people who travel experience a spark of different synapses in their brain due to their exposure to new sights, smells, sounds, tastes, languages, and sensations. This causes the brain to re-energize. So you could say that travel is a great way to reignite your mind.


References

Brein, M. (n.d.). The wanderlust gene. Michaelbrein.com. Retrieved from http://michaelbrein.com/travel-psychology/comments/the-wanderlust-gene/

Chen, C., Burton, M., Greenberger, E., & Dmitrieva, J. (1999). Population migration and the variation of dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) allele frequencies around the globe. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20(5), 309-324. doi: 10.1016/S1090-5138(99)00015-X

Chesterton, G. K. (2015). G. K. Chesterton Collection. Aeterna Press.

Crane, B. (2015, March 31). For a more creative brain, travel. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/for-a-more-creative-brain-travel/388135/

Dobbs, D. (2013, January). Restless genes. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/125-restless-genes/dobbs-text

Pollet, A. (2015, May 22). How to tell when wanderlust turns unhealthy. Relevant. Retrieved from http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/how-tell-when-wanderlust-turns-unhealthy

Ruiz, E. M. (2015, October 15). You don’t have wanderlust, you’re just bored. Observer. Retrieved from http://observer.com/2015/10/you-dont-have-wanderlust-youre-just-bored/

Scotti, D. (2015, March 3). The wanderlust gene: Why some people are born to travel. Elite Daily. Retrieved from http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/wanderlust-gene-people-born-travel/953464/

Wanderlust. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wanderlust

Zimmermann, J., & Neyer, F. J. (2013). Do we become a different person when hitting the road? Personality development of sojourners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(3), 515-530. doi: 10.1037/a0033019

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Written by Sophie Poulsen

Hello! I'm Sophie. (: I am a regular contributor here on Psych2Go. I'm currently doing my BSc in Communication and Media, but psychology has always been one of my interests. I am particularly interested in criminal psychology and how the mind of a psychopath works, though I am interested in all areas of psychology. I hope you enjoy my articles and if you would like to contact me, please feel free to do so at sophiepoulsen47@gmail.com.

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The Psychology of Wanderlust