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Why are some people happy to hole-up at home, while others can’t stop continent-hopping? Here we discuss the theories surrounding ‘wanderlust’
Paul Simpson | Issue 101 | February 2009
The novelist Stendhal travelled “to have something new to say.” For the philosopher Pascal, our urge to travel was more basic: “All human evil comes from a single cause: man’s inability to sit still in a room.” Robert Burton, famous analyst of melancholy, believed the rising of the sun, the movement of the stars and the ebb and flow of the sea existed “to teach us we should ever be in motion”. And Walt Whitman spoke for many travellers when he said: “O public road, you express me better than I express myself.”
Most of us would eschew such high-falutin’ explanations. We travel with specific cities, deserts, countries in mind – a motivation sociologists call ‘destination pull’ – yet, once we’ve savoured Venice or Tasmania we don’t return home, self-satisfied, and metaphorically put our feet up for the rest of our lives. For many, travel becomes a way of life.
Bruce Chatwin saw no mystery here: “Evolution intended us to be travellers. Settlement for any length of time, in cave or castle, has at best been a sporadic condition in the history of man. Prolonged settlement has a vertical axis of some 10,000 years, a drop in the ocean in evolutionary time. We are travellers from birth. Our mad obsession with technological progress is a response to barriers in the way of our geographical progress.”
Chatwin has a point. The earliest Homo sapiens skulls, found in Ethiopia, are 160,000 years old. Soon after that, our ancestors migrated across Europe and Asia and, just 55,000 years later, engaged in long-distance trade. The first villages were only settled around 10,000 years ago. Even today, some 30 to 40 million nomads roam restlessly, and the archetype of the loner, congenitally unable to settle because he was born under a wandrin’ star, has inspired countless folk singers, and the Beat Generation of American writers.
If we were programmed to travel, the obvious programmer would be a gene. In the early 1990s, an American scientist called Dean Hamer was hailed for discovering the bungee-jumping gene. D4DR is a gene that influences the amount of dopamine in our brains. If we have too many copies of this gene, we have the urge to do more bungee jumps to create the dopamine our brain needs to remain active.
Fascinated by the idea of a genetic explanation for thrill-seeking, journalists forgot to read the small print. Hamer’s research actually said that D4DR could explain only 4% of such behaviour. Besides, there could be 500 genes that ‘influence’ our personalities; the way they interact with each other – and our environment – to influence our behaviour is still largely a mystery.
Instead of conclusive scientific proof that genes predispose us to travel, we have some intriguing hints. This summer, a new study linked a mutation of the DRD4 gene (which also influences dopamine use) to attention deficit disorder and the Ariaal nomads in Kenya. In the study, impulsiveness, short attention spans and a penchant for risk-taking – the bane of every parent with a hyperactive toddler – proved useful to nomads, who were healthier and weighed more than relatives without this gene mutation. In lean times, such traits could be the difference between life and starvation for a nomadic Ariaal.
There is evidence that we get a chemical kick from travel. Chatwin noted in his book Anatomy of Restlessness that when American specialists X-rayed travellers’ brains,
“They found that changes of scenery and awareness of the passage of seasons through the year stimulated the rhythms of the brain, contributing to a sense of well-being and an active purpose in life.”
Journeys into the unknown stimulate our adrenalin. It is unclear whether our bodies can become dependent on adrenalin, but studies show that people in some jobs – police officers, actors and soldiers are usually cited – seek out risk in an unconscious effort to start those adrenal glands pumping. The same may be true of travellers.
“It is the difference between going to see a gorilla at the zoo and one in a tropical rainforest,” says Martin Milton, a British psychologist who likes to travel. “There is evidence that the degree of difficulty – getting out of our comfort zone – makes the experience richer and more emotionally rewarding.” That may account for what the Germans – who coined the term ‘wanderlust’ in the 1900s – now call fernweh (literally an ache for the distance).
Fernweh isn’t all down to chemistry. American psychologist Harry Levinson says that in Freudian theory the urges most essential for the survival of the species are aggression and sex. The aggressive energy we no longer displace by spearing mammoths needs an outlet somewhere. In Levinson’s view, that somewhere is travel.
Milton isn’t convinced: “I don’t know why you’d bring aggression into it, any more than sex. It seems more accurate to say that we are driven to forage, to be curious. Thousands of years ago those skills – to find a different source for food when one had dried up – would have enhanced our chances of survival.” There may be something to Pascal’s theory – that we travel because we can’t abide to sit quietly in a room – after all.
The freedom of the road is so often eulogised it has become a cliché but, like many clichés, it contains a grain or two of truth. “Too much routine can be stressful; so can too much variety,” says Milton, “but one aspect of travel that attracts us is the way it frees us from other people’s expectations. At work, we strive to be what is expected of us; travel releases us from that. The jungle doesn’t know us, and we don’t know it.”
The brain studies Chatwin cited also showed that: “Monotonous surroundings and tedious regular activities wove patterns which produced fatigue, nervous disorders, apathy, self-disgust and violent reactions.”
This may be why, paradoxically, although we are at the mercy of tardy airlines, grumpy customs officials and imperious barmen, travelling makes us feel freer. Without getting too heavily Freudian about it, travel may help us present idealised versions of ourselves to the world. This would explain why we, like Whitman, feel more authentically ourselves when travelling. The more mundane our job – and the more stifling the expectations we face at work – the greater the tonic travel provides for our ego.
Proverbially the scourge of cats, curiosity has been the making of Homo sapiens. Ibn Battuta, the tireless Arab explorer of the 14th century, even claimed that: “He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” Dean MacCannell, the American cultural critic, argues that our innate curiosity has been stimulated by our commercialised culture. Our desire to ‘get off the grid’ has, McCannell suggests, led more of us to seek ‘authenticity’, new experiences and even the meaning of life by visiting some far-flung fragment of a medieval city or an unspoiled Amazonian village.
Such generic motivations apart, it is still hard to pinpoint why some of us travel and others don’t – or, indeed, why some of us travel when we do.
Milton says the difference between, say, the nomadic Jack Kerouac and the stationary Philip Larkin, whose idea of exploration was finding a different corner of Hull University library, “may have something to do with extraversion and introversion”, but cautions that these personality types, defined by Carl Jung, are not actually mutually exclusive. Indeed, scientists now believe many of us are ‘ambiverts’ – ie, a bit of both. And it was a moody introvert called Meriwether Lewis who, with his extravert partner William Clark, led the first overland expedition to cross America to the Pacific Coast and back.
But why do life-changing events so often prompt us to travel? If you accept the five stages of grief and loss theory, the urge to jump on a plane would fit in easily with the first stage: denial. The desire to get away from it all – especially the anomie that plagues many societies in the West – may be particularly acute after a bereavement or divorce, and travel may help our egos cope by temporarily alleviating our problems.
American author Elizabeth McCracken sought the ‘geographic cure’ after being told her first child would be stillborn. “You can’t out-travel sadness,” she noted. “I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings.” TS Eliot understood this. He famously suggested: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The simple answer to the question: “Why do we travel?” is the best one: because we enjoy it. Exactly why is much debated, but Chatwin may have been onto something when he wrote: “I like to think our brains have an information system giving us orders for the road, and that here lie the mainsprings of our restlessness.” Besides, as a priest famously told travel writer Robert Sangster: “In all my years, I’ve never once heard a man on his deathbed say: ‘My one regret is that I didn’t spend more time in the office.’”
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What a great article - and I love your quote from Pascal. I must be so, so evil: I can't sit still for a minute!
This is a fantastic article on the subject. Why don't you just remove the quiz as per my other comment?
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