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An ode to curiosity

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Thinking. Photo: Talent Talks

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths,” says Walt Disney.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” offers Albert Einstein.

“My favourite words are possibilities, opportunities and curiosity. I think if you are curious, you create opportunities, and then if you open the doors, you create possibilities.”

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Mario Testino.
Who are we argue with such genius creators in their fields?

AND yet we do each time we say, “Curiosity kills the cat” to warn off any small act of curious exploration.

I have always been a wonderer and a wanderer. The two go hand in hand – the more you wonder, the more you wander off, and the more you wander off, the more you wonder. Sometimes it’s our sense of wonder and curiosity that feeds our wanderlust and sometimes it’s the other way around.

My tribe of nomads will understand me, those who love maps and globes, who are ever ready to pack up a carry on bag and leave as soon as they hear the word ‘travel’, those who get orgasmic pleasure at the second a plane’s wheels leave the tarmac… Those of us who don’t mind getting lost in a new city in the early hours of the morning or head out, without fear, to pace the streets of a foreign land after midnight.

Did you know that wanderlust may be linked to a gene variant known as DRD4-7R, which is thought to be present in around 20 per cent of the population?

DRD4 is a dopamine receptor that helps control the levels of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is an organic chemical which can be triggered by anything from chocolate to receiving a like on social media; it’s also a precursor of other substances including adrenaline.

DRD4-7R is a variant of DRD4 which researchers claim has a lower sensitivity to dopamine. Us 20% of the population who carry this variant are more likely to seek experiences that release more dopamine.

This variant is also associated with increased risk taking, curiosity, various psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, alcoholism and drug dependency.

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Our genes, after all, are the reason why some us are more prone to risky behaviour and substance abuse. However, they may also explain the difference between the nomadic explorers and creative genii such as Einstein and Disney and those who reckon curiosity kills the cat.

In 1999, research by the University of California suggested the 7R variant was more prevalent in migratory cultures than in settled ones, supporting the idea of a so-called “wanderlust gene”.

Subsequent research goes further, suggesting people with the 7R variant are actually more adaptable to nomadic lifestyle; the same studies suggested those with the 7R variant actually fared less well than their contemporaries when they lived as settled villagers.

In his latest book, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, one of the world’s leading researchers on the nature of perception, neuroscientist Beau Lotto claims that if we only regarded each other and our environments objectively, we would never see the possibility in the world around us.

To paraphrase from Deviate:
“When you are sitting in your community, sheltered and protected, where everything is momentarily predictable, the last thing you want to do is say, “Hmmmm, I wonder what is on the other side of the hill?” Bad idea! The probability of dying just suddenly increased considerably. But it is because of that “mad” individual that the group has a better chance to survive in an environment that is dynamic—by learning what dangers or benefits are on the other side of that hill, and perhaps discovering new spaces of possibility that the group hadn’t known existed.”

What does this all mean? Do we owe our very existence today to our ancestors who were fortunate to have the DRD4-7R? Are we here today because they were fired with the kind of curiosity and wanderlust that pushed them over the hill – literally – to break new ground and find new land?

Whatever it may be, I’m happy to be of the restless minority ever ready to fly off to new horizons and sail off to new adventures. As for the risk of substance abuse, travel is a sure way to find bigger thrills than wallowing and wilting away in that stifling place some call ‘comfort zone’.


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