Do you feel like as humans, we’re meant to travel? Like its embedded in our DNA? In the beginning humans started off as nomads. But many of us now aren’t nomads, yet we have this desire to venture to lands unknown to us. Why do we still have this feeling of wanderlust? What purpose does it serve to modern day humans?
It has been shown that vacations generally increase health and well-being. Makes sense, we need a break from our routines once in a while so we don’t burn out. What’s interesting is that the positive vacation effects generally don’t last long once you return to work (ah those post vacation blues). How does your brain moderate these feelings?
Having studied neuroscience for most of my adult life, I have a few ideas regarding the brain’s involvement in traveling. Obviously this is just a theory, I have in no way designed an experiment to test this out but humor me for a minute.
Traveling is a very rewarding experience. Typically it makes people happy (keyword typically). What if traveling activated the same neurons/ brain cells as food, drugs and sex? I’m talking about in influx of dopamine to the brain’s reward system. From the moment you book your tickets, don’t you feel a surge of excitement? A rush of energy? In an overall positive mood in anticipation to your trip?
For those unfamiliar with my neuroscience jargon, dopamine is a type of chemical (referred to as a neurotransmitter) released in your brain. Most often, dopamine activates certain neurons that have an affinity for it (think of dopamine as a key and these neurons as locks). Your neurons have a variety of responsibilities. For the neurons that drive reward-seeking behaviours, dopamine activation creates positive/euphoric feelings. But when those neurons are de-activated, you start to feel a little depressed as you come down from the high.
So when you arrive at your travel destination and take in those new sights, and smells dopamine activates your reward system causing an overall positive mood. Your brain is telling you that this is a rewarding experience! Then when you return from your vacation, your “vacation high” starts to wear off. Dopamine is no longer activating your reward system as you are no longer in that positive setting. And once you get a taste of that high you try to seek it again through booking your next vacation (Wow I low key explained the beginning phases of addiction. Is being addicted to traveling clinically possible?).
So maybe I’ve thought harder than most people about this topic. In my defence many other scholars have also theorized that travelling and dopamine activation are related. Dopamine is considered as the brain’s “happy drug” and taking vacations generally make people happy. The connection’s a no brainer (in my humble opinion). It’s just nobody’s been put into an fMRI machine and asked to plan a vacation so we can see what parts of their brain are activated (not that I’ve heard of anyways, correct me if I’m wrong). If any neuroscientists want to take a break from solving the opioid crisis and wants to do a fun experiment let me know.
At this point if you’re still reading I just wanted to say thanks for reading my first post! Travelling and science are two of my passions and I just wanted a fun way to combine the two! I hope to make more posts about the scientific benefits of travelling, as well as posts about all my travel adventures :).