Dopamine & the Travel Bug

They call it the “travel bug”. It is described as a  feverish, compulsive urge to escape to foreign lands, to be invigorated by the unknown and explore new horizons. Wanderlust… It is a cliché of course, but it gives us a clue as to what’s happening in the brain when the travel bug has bitten.

Humans share a basic emotional make-up with all other mammals. These are hard-wired, there-from-birth brain systems that mature over time but make sure that we are ready, straight off the bat, to respond to archetypal challenges that would otherwise compromise our survival. Take for example, a baby. If its brain did not make it cry when released from the security of its mother’s warm embrace, mom might occupy herself with other inviting things, feeding the infant less frequently than it might need. Malnutrition, or even death, will soon follow. The decline of brain opioids (the chemicals that make us feel secure and serene) in the baby’s brain, ensure that it begins to wail when maternal security is interrupted.

Now, travel might seem to occupy the opposite end of the security spectrum. How can the desire to rocket-launch yourself to a strange and foreign land be adaptive? Our preoccupation with travel emerges from what neuroscientists in the field of emotion call the “SEEKING” system. This is a network of brain structures passing through the “medial forebrain bundle” that run on dopamine. Yes, dopamine… the so-called “feel good” neurotransmitter.

A neurotransmitter is a chemical in the brain that binds to neurons (the cells of the brain) to make them active.

Dopamine does indeed make you feel good, but in a special kind of way. The whole function of the SEEKING system is to make sure that you feel invigorated by your surroundings. It makes you feel curious, even excited. The delight of working your way through a puzzle. It is the anticipation of figuring out something new, something unknown but potentially rewarding that makes dopamine so rewarding itself. That is the nature of the feel-goodness associated with dopamine. It is different to the good feelings that a sensual massage might elicit, or the sweet satisfaction as you swallow a mouthful of chocolate cake. The latter two examples have a lot to do with opioids, hence why heroin is so utterly addictive.

If you didn’t feel interested in anything around you, you probably wouldn’t get around to dressing yourself, feeding yourself, or heading out into the big bad world to meet other people and live out your existence as a meaningful member of society. Actually, back in the 40’s and 50’s, brain surgeons thought that blasting away the medial-forebrain bundle (a “lobotomy” performed through the eye socket with an ice-pick) was a cure for unruly schizophrenics. What they were actually doing was destroying any possibility for curious, motivated behaviour. So while the patients became docile, no longer tempestuous or aggressive, they also lost all desire to perform any activity at all. They became zombies. In short, dopamine activity thrives off the unknown because the unknown is the breeding ground of anticipation. Evolution has made sure that curiosity about yet-to-be-explored horizons is reward enough itself.

The functioning of dopamine helps us understand the experience of “anti-climax”. Have you ever felt disappointed by finally reaching a much anticipated goal? I remember being an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town and fervently looking forward to the vacation that would follow the brutal set of year-end exams. Yet, when the yearning was over and I finally woke up to Day 1 of the holidays, I somehow felt deflated. That’s because dopamine, so powerfully rewarding, had finished its job and stopped unleashing the full extent of its glory in my brain. Dopamine helps us achieve our goals – endeavours which can require a fair bit of endurance – by making us feel motivated and alive. Neurally speaking, soaring levels of the stuff is costly, and a decline in dopamine occurs following achievement of a goal. Even though the stress of the exams had abated and I kicked back into a lifestyle of complete hedonism (what could be better!?), the shortage of dopamine can be hard to bare. Actually, many people believe that depression is fundamentally a disorder of this important brain chemical, where you no longer feel interested in previously enjoyed activities and experience little motivation to interact with the world, let alone get out of bed!

So, travel… Travelling can be addictive because embarking on a trip activates the SEEKING system and the release of dopamine. It’s a bug because dopamine is not something that gets ‘satisfied’. Satisfaction, unfortunately, is the very tap that turns off the supply. The only way to turn it back on, is to plan your next trip…

“Where’s my dopamine?” is a blog about the brain and travel. Questions about where the urge to travel comes from is just one small piece of the story. Travelling brings with it a tidal wave of emotions and in this blog I explore the neuroscience of these experiences. We come to expect positive, life-affirming accounts from most travel writers, but in truth, being on the move in foreign places brings with it its fair share of distress and confusion. The title of this blog tries to capture this aspect. For the adventurous, travel holds opportunity for endless reward, a brain buzzed up on its seeking juice. But sometimes, on a bad day, one really does have to ask, “where the f*#*k is my dopamine!?”

 

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