A Sense of Place: Genetics and Travel

doors of opportunityHave you ever traveled somewhere and felt instantly at home? Or arrived in a new place and felt a sense of disconnection you couldn’t put your finger on? I’m sure we all have, but why does it happen?

I’ve arrived in a new place with an open mind, eager for new experiences only to discover it felt ‘wrong’, and despite my best efforts never felt connected or completely happy there. I’ve landed in other places with the same open attitude, breathed in the air and knew instantly I was ‘home’.

Why does that happen if we have the same expectations each time we set out on a new adventure? It’s something that’s played around the edges of my head for a long time.

Home has always been important to me, not only geographically but physically too, the four walls inside which we create a safe haven from the outside world. Sometimes those four walls have been a ‘home’, other times merely a place to live. Interestingly the geographical locations I’ve felt connected to are the places where we’ve also created a ‘home’.

My spouse and I recently got to discussing the connection of family across generations and tracing genealogical roots. A current, popular trend which has resulted in a slew of television programmes recently, where celebrities and ordinary people trace their families trees – to discover who they are, where they’ve come from and traced similarities in lives lived in different times and places. Do I watch these programmes? Absolutely.

I’m fascinated by repeated patterns of familial behaviour and, as the journey continues back in time, how emotionally connected celebrities and ordinary people become to their previously unknown ancestors.

For me this is entirely understandable. It’s been a fleeting thought in my head for years that perhaps the very point of our human existence is to ensure the survival of DNA, not us – an argument I won’t get into here as it involves, religion, philosophy, science and all that good stuff. As I said, it was merely a fleeting, fanciful thought.

Until I got to thinking about the ‘travel’ gene. I’ve also seen it referred to as the ‘Expat gene’ – the gene that makes some people leave their tribe to see what’s over the next mountain. It seems people with this need to head for the nearest horizon have a similar/ shared genetic make up with a higher instance of the novelty/ thrill seeking gene (the D4-7 allele).

In 2005 National Geographic, IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation charity got together to privately fund the five-year Genographic project, with the aim of taking over 100,000 DNA samples worldwide with the resulting informationa availble to scientists studying human migration. The project continues with over 500,000 participants in over 140 countries. Check it out if you haven’t already, it’s fascinating.

Being an armchair philosopher it makes complete sense (to me) that in the same way our physical information is carried in our genes and passed from one generation to the next, why not carry environmental information too? A recognition of places.

I’m not necessarily talking about ancestors and places from thousands of years ago, but perhaps only a few generations back.

Arriving for the first time in Vancouver a few years ago, I was hit by an immediate sense of recognition, an intense feeling for a place I’d never previously visited. In our subsequent trips the feeling has remained the same, a feeling of coming home. The fact an ancestral great-great-aunt ran off to Canada and ultimately retired to Vancouver is a perfect explanation of why that happened – for me at least. Unscientific maybe but it has a wonderful symmetry.

I’ve experienced that same jolt of recognition in other places and remained connected to them throughout my life. Places where I’ve lived and had no connection? It’s as if I was never there. Not because I was unhappy but because the place didn’t feel ‘right’, wasn’t important, didn’t touch me in any way. Perhaps because there was no genetic history?

Fanciful perhaps, but it’s been a long, drawn-out winter and the mind can wander off in strange directions in the endless wait for longer days and bluer skies.

Except in our imaginations there is a greater freedom where the mind can soar without inhibition or restriction. A great place to be on a cold winter’s day. I wonder if there’s an imagination gene…

BBC  – Genographic survey

BBC  – Crusaders’ left Genetic Legacy

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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17 Responses to A Sense of Place: Genetics and Travel

  1. Admiring the hard work you put into your blog and detailed information you provide. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Excellent read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  2. Let’s hear it for the ‘imagination gene’! In truth, not everything that makes sense to us can be scientifically explained. How is it that we visit places (and even time travel) in our dreams to a place that feels familiar and yet we’ve never experienced when we’re awake? Our subconscious at work perhaps, and then there’s the phenomena of people sleeping in close proximity having the same dream! It happened to me a couple of weeks ago… Love that stuff but can’t explain it rationally!

    • wordgeyser says:

      Love all that stuff – I’m always drawn to the line in Hamlet,’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
      Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. Now that Shakespeare was another man of vision…

  3. Talk about a generational line! I felt that the moment I walked down the street in Bangor, Northern Ireland and then again in a couple of places in France….and then Texas! Then it was fun to realize Ancestry.com has tracked me there already. Thanks for this…will save to read again. Love studies like this, and your writing give clarity and things to ponder!

    • wordgeyser says:

      Funnily enough there was a BBC program on TV last night– The Izzard Family – where British Comedian Eddie Izzard had his DNA analysed and is following his unique genetic route across the world, from his mother’s genetic line back to his (and our) first mother. From the Kalahari to Djibouti to Yemen (where tens of thousands of years later he was born when his father was there on assignment) to Istanbul (where generations later his parents honeymooned) to the area around the Black Sea (where all blue eyes originate)… fascinating? You betcha! Can’t wait for the next episode when they’ll follow his father’s genetic line. As a Humanist and true Renaissance man I have a lot of time for this guy.

  4. sheila eaton says:

    wow! a project with 500,000 participants, DNA samples – information available – amazing. Got to find time to check this out. Great thought provoking post – many thnaks.

  5. Maggie says:

    Very interesting Jane and I agree that there are places I feel completely at home for no apparent reason. I also find it interesting that there are places/cities I have visited where something always goes wrong, or I feel bad or I never enjoy myself no matter how much I try.

  6. expatlogue says:

    “In 2005 National Geographic, IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation charity got together to privately fund the five-year Genographic project, with the aim of taking over 100,000 DNA samples worldwide with the resulting informationa availble to scientists studying human migration. The project continues with over 500,000 participants in over 140 countries.” Oh wow! Gotta check this out!
    I’m just reaching a stage where my curiosity is stirred by events in my genealogical past. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to get the right information to go on – my mother is a mythomaniac.

  7. Jo @ SummertimePublishing says:

    Indeed, yes. If that is one of your ‘fanciful’ thoughts, I wonder what your serious, researched theories would come up with. Fascinating. Yes. I too felt at home in Vancouver. No family has ever to my knowledge, been there, however. I put this connectedness and that ‘jolt’ you write of down to seeing things that are familiar. Here in Borneo, the sight of a spreading frangipani tree makes me think of the chestnuts of England. And in seeing that I feel at home. The smell of mown grass and I am back in England on a summer Sunday. A lime soda in my hand in the Netherlands and I close my eyes and am back in Dubai. But the gene connection? Oh yes, I think so. Here in Brunei the ‘energy’ of many friends who lived here before us linger on every corner and I experience filips of connectedness every day.

    Thanks, Jane

    • wordgeyser says:

      Like your thoughts Jo – a sense of the familiar, which in itself is a type of genetic recognition, who knows! Glad you are joining the brunei experience, so enjoying being an armchair traveler reading your blog (nice change from having to travel myself).

  8. petchary says:

    Your piece has set me wondering… As a person who has meandered around the globe, a bit. I wonder if there is a gene. But then, my sister is simply not like that, and has lived her entire life so far within a 20-mile radius. She didn’t get that gene! I must think about it some more… Thanks!

    • wordgeyser says:

      I hear what you say… my own sister has never left our home town, and maybe I wouldn’t, had circumstances been different. I do know there was always an ‘itch’ to see places – maybe it has to be a mix of interest and opportunity!

  9. Apple Gidley says:

    Jane, once again you’ve written a thought provoking piece – thank you!

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