Traveller or Explorer

Brave, risk-taking, adventurous and novelty-seeking are all words that come to mind when we think of an explorer. One of the most famous, Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose expeditions took him to the polar regions, once put an advert in a newspaper seeking fellow explorers. It read: “MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, months of darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.”

Not the most enticing of offers for most people, but for some, it’s just the thing they’re looking for in life. Pushing boundaries and getting out of a comfort zone, can be both exhilarating and rewarding. There’s no doubt that travel and discovery are very exciting, but what kind of a person would respond to Shackleton’s search?

According to Associate Professor John W Vanmeter, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University in Washington DC, our need to explore is regulated by the brain. There are two regions in the brain that are linked to risky behaviour: the limbic region which is driven by new experiences and by rewards from stimuli, and the prefrontal cortex, which does a completely different job; it makes executive decisions and stops us from engaging in risky behaviour.

“One person’s brain may be more or less developed,” Vanmeter says. “The connections between these brain regions may be more finely tuned in one individual than another.” Vanmeter says that a more active limbic region is typically linked to greater risky behaviour (such as dangerous expeditions).

“I love the freedom,” said Roff Smith, a National Geographic photographer and an expeditions leader of his trips to faraway, difficult-to-reach places, whose achievements include a 16,000km bike trip around the Australian outback.

The effect of the adventures is felt because of dopamine in our brains. High levels of this chemical are linked to risk-taking behaviour; the ‘riskier’ the behaviour, the greater the rise in dopamine. And this rise in dopamine acts as a ‘reward’, making us feel good.

The Norwegian explorer, Børge Ousland, who specialises in climbing the world’s greatest icecaps, feels good for a different reason, “When I’m on trips, I am much more present in my own life… because I have to focus on the here and now. Back home, I am always focusing on something happening in the future. [On expeditions], time stops, and you become like a Stone Age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are a part of the universe. That’s one of the most valuable feelings I have had.”

Another explorer, Wendy Searle, who has walked to the South Pole solo (one of only seven women to do this), suggests, “You can start small, with a more local expedition, and build up your confidence and experience over time.”

Ernest Shackleton believed an explorer should display four traits: Optimism, Patience, Idealism and Courage. Even if your limbic region is not hard-wired for hardcore exploration, you can always build up to whatever your own limit is, practising the four traits. Any challenge you set yourself - big or small - is going to be rewarding if achieved.

Recommended Links:

Famous Explorers from History to Modern Times (

The qualities of an explorer: then and now | Shackleton Journal

BBC - Travel - You’re either an explorer, or you’re not. Which one are you?

Gallery Directory - Roff Smith Photography