Orchids, dandelions and cognitive genetics

The Atlantic has an excellent article on how our assumptions about genetic vulnerability to mental illness may be misplaced, as many studies have missed out how the same genetic factors may cause people to thrive but only in quite specific circumstances.

One of the difficulties with psychiatry research is that it often has a sample bias, a blind spot if you will, as it typically studies people who turn up in front of mental health professionals because they’re a problem to themselves or others.

It finds social, psychological or biological factors associated with the problem and then speculates that these might be involved in causing the problem.

Many times throughout history, however, it has later been discovered that perfectly functional people have the same traits but they weren’t specifically looked for and so weren’t included when the theories were devised.

In this case, the article tackles how genes originally identified as ‘risk factors’ for mental illness, could, in fact, be equally well conceived of as ‘sensitivity factors’ that heighten response to all situations.

When these situations include tragedy, abuse, or what in the medical literature are euphemistically called ‘life events’ (essentially, the shit in ‘shit happens’) the result may be an increased chance of mental illness, but when the situations are positive, life-enhancing opportunities, this extra sensitivity may lead to better outcomes.

Though this hypothesis is new to modern biological psychiatry, it can be found in folk wisdom, as the University of Arizona developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and the University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce pointed out last year in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The Swedes, Ellis and Boyce noted in an essay titled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” have long spoken of “dandelion” children. These dandelion children—equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.

At first glance, this idea, which I’ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness.

Link to Atlantic article ‘The Science of Success’.

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