Born To Be Wild
ELLE Singapore|September 2018

Can your DNA explain why you need to take leave and travel so often?

Tan Min Yan

The notion of being born to travel is a very romantic one. We wax lyrical about the inexplicable urge to be on the road, and to “find” oneself while roaming the world. But can we put a scientific explanation as to why some of us are more prone to answering the siren call of wanderlust? What if the desire to traverse countries is in your blood?

Or in this case, coded into your genes. For years, researchers have tried to prove a link between a gene variant known as DRD4-7R and these exploratory behaviours. DRD4-7R is also more commonly known as a dopamine receptor, which helps control the level of dopamine in our brains.

It is believed people with DRD4-7R have a lower sensitivity to dopamine, which makes them seek out experiences that cause the release of more dopamine. According to researchers, these people tend to display traits like novelty-seeking behaviour, extroversion and impulsivity, often associated with adventure.

And if you’ve ever chided these gung-ho friends for plunging head-first into risky travel situations without a second thought, you might have a case.

Dr Richard Paul Ebstein from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore is an expert in genetics, human biology and neuroscience. He’s done extensive research on DRD4-7R and examined its link to financial risk behaviour. He believes someone who’s more impulsive and novelty-seeking is typically also a risk-taker.

“The same variant that makes you travel also makes you less risk-averse, and more prone to go for the gamble,” he explains. “The gene itself is involved in getting you to actually do things, as opposed to not doing things.”

Some studies believe DRD4-7R also explains trends in early human migration. A 1999 study by the University of California examined individuals from 39 populations and their migration patterns in prehistoric times. It was found that “compared to sedentary populations, migratory populations showed a higher proportion of long alleles for DRD4”.

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