Photo Credit: 1910 world map. Patrick Barry/ Flickr.

There are definitely two types of people when it comes to travel. Some venture abroad a little, maybe as far as Spain in the summer where they go every year, to lay on a beach for a week building up a tan. Others are far braver, putting on their backpack and saying goodbye to their family for the next few months to explore Europe or Asia, with little idea what they will encounter out there. Is this sense of adventure merely personality and personal preference, or is it something deeper: genetics making people a born explorer?

There is a certain mutation in the gene DRD4, the gene responsible for dopamine levels, believed to be responsible for restless behaviour. This variant, DRD4-7R, is found to make people more likely to take risks; risks ranging from exploring new places and foods to new relationships and drugs.

People with urges to travel, with their long lists of countries to visit and stacks of travel books on their shelves, are frequently described as having wanderlust: a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about. However, when this restless gene DRD4-7R is present in children they are often diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Researchers from the University of California Irvine were interested in a link between DRD4 and ADHD in gene pools of pre-historic humans. However, their research took an unexpected turn when they discovered people with DRD4-7R were thrill seekers with long histories of travelling. The study concluded that DRD4-7R had been linked to hyperactivity and risk taking as shown in ADHD, but these behaviours provide adaptive behaviours for migratory societies, increasing chances of their survival. Therefore, for the human race the DRD4-7R gene has allowed humans to flourish and spread across planet Earth, by not settling for where they were, but continuing to travel to uninhabited land around the globe for more resources. Without this gene polymorphism, humans would be living in a much denser area, instead of dispersing out to the vast number of countries populated today.

With this in mind, ADHD should also be seen as a potential asset and not entirely as a disorder. ADHD is currently seen as a behavioural disorder, characterised by restlessness, impulsivity and a short attention span. Most are diagnosed between the ages of 6 and 12 years old, and is more common in those with learning difficulties: although anyone can be diagnosed with ADHD, irrespective of age and intelligence. The DRD4-7R gene plays a role in ADHD, but having the gene does not mean you have ADHD; there are a range of other potential factors including premature birth, and mothers smoking, drinking and using drugs during the pregnancy.

As a child, we are naturally more exploratory allowing us to learn more and develop; pushing us to crawl and walk and climb and see the world. As Piaget famously said, children are “little scientists” forming their own hypotheses about the world then seeking to test them out to make further hypotheses to build a picture of how the world works. If this exploratory adventurous nature continues into adulthood, it could well be explained as an adult with wanderlust. In the same way, a hyperactive child with AHHD can grow up and use these skills to their advantage in the workplace; being able to multitask and channel their energy into their work.

Whilst it is still not entirely clear what causes ADHD, the DRD4 gene certainly has a strong link, providing its recipients with restlessness, whether in terms of a clinical disorder or a simple urge to travel.