Wanderlust and other personality disorders

“Wow. That’s crazy.”

I was somewhere in the middle of my annual haircut and the question had arisen as to why my hair had gotten to the length it had. This had, of course, necessitated a conversation regarding my travels and expeditions throughout the year in Alaska and Chile. The hairdresser, a friend of a friend, seemed slightly in awe.

“That’s really cool,” she told me. “I don’t want to travel though. I like being at home too much. It’s comfortable.”

At this point, I realised that we would never be friends. Our goals, our lifestyles, the very nature of our individual existences were so savagely juxtaposed that it left little room for middle ground. More to the point, I was filled with a curious blend of exasperation, bewilderment, pity and a hint of loathing. It got me wondering how two people with ostensibly similar backgrounds can be launched upon such vastly different tangents. We had both begun life as middle-class suburbanites in the same city, yet had totally different attitudes in respect to the opposing virtues of adventure and security. Why should this be so?

I feel that the romanticism of films has a lot to answer for in regard to my unrealistic expectations in life. I grew up on adventure films and books which dangerously skewed my perception on the RQ (Radness Quotient, patent still pending) of certain professions. With the brutish clarity of adult retrospection, I realised that archaeology would never as awesome as Indiana Jones, that espionage was unlikely to be as thrilling as James Bond and that life as a journalist would pale in comparison to the adventures of Tintin. Nevertheless, these and many others left an indelible mark on my impressionable young mind which inevitably carried over into my adult life.

But linking the spirit of adventure to the influence of Hollywood is something of a stretch. In my case, I feel like the two are inexticably linked, but as any good scientist or economist will have you know, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. After all, millions of people around the globe have grown up with those same influences. If each of these individuals gave up the comforts of modern life in pursuit of a more adventurous existence, the global economy would have come to a screaming, apocalyptic halt quite some years ago. Perhaps the answer lies not in that isolated aspect of my upbringing, but within the broader tapestry that was my childhood as a whole.

My greatest fear as a young adult was conforming to the status quo, the pre-ordained Australian Dream (or insert your nationality here) of home-ownership, parenthood and indentured servitude. It was my most earnest desire to experience a different life to that which my parents had not so much lived as endured. To be clear, I have the utmost respect for my parents and the sacrifices they made to bring myself and my two siblings up in the best way they could. In providing a stable atmosphere for children on a modest income, it was difficult for them to escape the bubble of domestic life. Essentially, they were never at play. Life was work, and that scared the absolute shit out of me. The idea of working the same job in the same location for forty years seems insane to me, though that’s largely a perspective derived from the experience of my generation. As the previous century progressed toward its anti-climactic finale, each generation has been afforded greater freedom, flexibility and range of choices in regard to the paths their lives would take. If it is true that many people are exercising this freedom, then it is also true that a greater majority are waiving the ability to do so. Within the admittedly small cross-section evidenced by my immediate family, I seem to be the lone beneficiary (or victim, depending on your perspective) of the characteristic commonly referred to as Wanderlust. My brother and sister, both younger than I, are seemingly normal folk with three children between them. So if restlessness can be attributed neither to cultural influences or childhood experiences, from where does it stem? Perhaps the answer lies in our very genetics, a question of nature versus nurture.

Adventure, it seems, may be simply a quirk of genetics. Many studies have identified a mutation within the DRD4 gene, which sounds like robot from Star Wars but is indeed responsible in part for the control of dopamine, a chemical which is associated with reward. This mutation, labelled DRD4-7R (or 7R for short) is found within approximately 20% of humans and is commonly linked with curiosity and restlessness. It seems itchy feet have their own specific genetic marker. People who possess 7R are typically more likely to engage in risky behaviour, including but not limited to exploration, eating spicy food, engaging in extreme sports and the darker temptations of drug or alcohol dependence or risky sexual behaviour. Essentially, 7R brings with it a propensity to move and to experience new things. Not only does it encourage movement, it inhibits stability. According to a 2008 study of Ariaal Tribesman, “those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well-nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one.”

This sure seems to wrap up nicely the reason for my insatiably itchy feet, however experts are quick to comment that the behaviour of humans as exploratory creatures cannot be simply explained by an isolated gene. Once again, we’re at a crossroads without any clear indicator of what makes an adventurer tick. My guess is that it’s no one reason that drives people to travel, to rock climb, to explore the uncharted regions of the globe or to volunteer for war. Rather, a combination of circumstances collaborate to produce the ideal conditions for an adventurous spirit. Our Earth is a perfect distance from the sun, a perfect size and weight, and happens to be possessed of water and a breathable atmosphere. All these variables, despite the infinite combinations possible, combine to create a habitable venue for life. On a smaller scale, each adventurer is an analogy for the Earth. They are a human born in a certain location, raised on specific values and possessed of the genetic disposition for adventure. This similarity brings a sort of synchronicity and poetic grace to the explorer who seeks to find in the wilderness a more potent, more poignant and more perfect expression of his own nature and that of the human race.

I choose to believe that, because the alternative is that I have ADHD.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in April 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?