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You know the rush you get when you’re planning the perfect trip? Or the adrenaline of getting on a flight or jumping on a train; the excitement of arriving at your destination and scratching another country off your map; the happiness of walking around the streets of a new city? Believe it or not, some people don’t feel the same way about it. But what determines whether you’re a travel-lover or you’d rather stay home and not wander far? Is it a travel bug that bites or are you born with it? Is there such a thing as wanderlust? Or is it a word for hippies to tattoo along with a globe as a way of saying ‘I can’t wait to get out of here’? Scientifically speaking, wanderlust is not just hippie slang. 

Wanderlust: noun /ˈwɒn.də.lʌst/: the wish or strong desire to travel far away and to many different places.

If you've ever found yourself constantly daydreaming about traveling the world, rarely feeling settled in one place, and itching to go back to exploring, then you have a severe case of wanderlust. Borrowing from the German 'wanderlust' – meaning 'passion to wander' – this term first appeared in the English language early last century. Travel has become a central drive in our lives, but can we be born wanderlusters? Is the impulse to travel something we can’t control – a case of nature over nurture – or is it a hormonally-driven compulsion that we must act upon? There are so many variables beyond the simple justification of wanting to break out of a daily routine. Turns out there’s a scientific reason behind why we’re always itching to get our suitcases out and book that flight.

Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Some people get a severe compulsion to travel more than others, and not just to any destinations – they always go for the challenging destinations, places where they are likely to be pushed out of their comfort zones or encouraged to take risks. Researchers have repeatedly tried to link such behavior traits with a gene called DRD4, which acts on dopamine levels in the brain. The mix of a gene known as DRD4-7R has been dubbed the 'wanderlust gene', and the 7R variant is linked with restlessness and curiosity. This can drive people to take bigger risks than others, which includes – you guessed it! – traveling and exploring new or different places. For some people, traveling and exploring triggers dopamine – basically equivalent to chocolate, ecstasy, or receiving a text from someone you love; it’s also a precursor of other substances such as adrenaline.

The 20 percent of the population thought to carry this gene are more likely to seek experiences that release more dopamine, being more on the risk-taking side than others. In 1999, research by the University of California suggested the 7R allele was more prevalent in migratory cultures than in settled ones, supporting the idea of a so-called “wanderlust gene.” Subsequent research goes further, suggesting that people with the 7R allele are actually more adaptable to the nomadic lifestyle. Turns out, some people do have the travel bug in their blood but there's also another scientific proof that travel addiction is real.

A travel addiction is embodied in "dromomania," a diagnosable impulse-control disorder that basically translates to travel addiction.

Although wanderlust can make us smarter, happier, and more creative, it may also bring along some sort of an unhealthy addiction – a compulsion to fill in the maps we have and a strong desire to explore what lies beyond the seas and mountains. Could it be possible to overdose on a good thing? Apparently, traveling and yearning to understand the world better could eventually spill over into a legitimate addiction. According to Dr. Michael Brein, a social psychologist who specializes in travel and intercultural communication, the addiction is real, and figuring out what causes it is incredibly complicated. A travel addiction is embodied in "dromomania," a diagnosable impulse-control disorder that basically translates to travel addiction. This has been a topic of exploration for experts ever since the 1800s, when Jean-Albert Dadas wandered into a hospital in Bordeaux, France five years after leaving the French army to relentlessly cross Europe on foot on a five-year journey that took him around Berlin, Prague, Moscow, and Constantinople before succumbing to exhaustion. By the time he arrived in Bordeaux, he had no memory of his travels. Dadas was diagnosed with a severe case of dromomania, defined as an abnormal impulse to travel, with an incentive to spend beyond one's means, sacrificing jobs, lovers, and security all for the lust of new experiences. 

via Austin Neill on Unsplash

Today, this is a common way to describe the breed of extreme wanderers who could only be called competitive travelers. Not to be confused with avid travelers, competitive travelers may dedicate their lives to going anywhere and everywhere – some sort of country collectors racing around the world to collect stamps, racing to get on the endless lists of 'most traveled people'. A yearning to travel and explore may turn into a quest for scoring more for a bigger tally of territory totals. Yes, we seek out travel more often once we realize how rewarding it is, but much like the search for success, for competitive travelers that fleeting moment of triumph when you collect a new stamp is overshadowed by the need for "just one more." While the reward of travel lies in the physical and psychological escape from routine, traveling in itself could turn into a routine at some point and, the less exciting it becomes, the more you want to you go out there in search of what you yearn for -- and that's where the fine line lies. 

Scientifically speaking, traveling does change your life, and #traveladdict is not just a hashtag on Instagram. If you ever need an excuse to travel, you could just say it's actually in your blood. Still, you don’t need a DNA test to tell you whether or not you were born a traveler. In both cases, there are risks and rewards to being on the road, but it always boils down to this question: does traveling bring you closer to knowing the world or does it take you further away from your reality? Be a traveler, not a country-collector.