"Orchid" Children: A New Way Of Looking At Genetics And Our Brains

Contemporary thinking has it that certain genes doom children to higher risk of depression, ADHD, and other difficulties. But in the right environment, these same genes may actually help kids thrive.

In an Atlantic essay called "The Science of Success," David Dobbs writes about two types of children: "orchids" and "dandelions." Dandelion children tend to do pretty well no matter what environment they grow up in. Orchid children, meanwhile, may develop behavior or mood problems in abusive or neglectful homes — but in loving ones, they may thrive even more than dandelions. And according to new research, the difference between dandelions and orchids may be genetic. For instance, kids with a certain variant of a dopamine-processing gene are at greater risk of ADHD and "externalizing behavior" (i.e. "acting out") than other children. But in one study, these kids also improved much more in response to a video-based behavioral intervention than did kids who didn't have the at-risk variant. Similarly, rhesus monkeys with another gene variant (one associated with depression in humans) are worse at processing serotonin than their peers if they are raised as orphans. But when raised by a loving monkey mother, these seemingly at-risk animals process serotonin more efficiently than other monkeys, and are also more socially successful. These and other studies suggest that certain genes confer not risk per se, but a kind of openness to environmental stimuli, positive or negative. Dobbs writes,

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. It's one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the "bad" gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

Dobbs spends a lot of time talking about the population-level implications of this new idea. He points out "that a genetic trait tremendously maladaptive in one situation can prove highly adaptive in another" and that "every society needs some individuals who are more aggressive, restless, stubborn, submissive, social, hyperactive, flexible, solitary, anxious, introspective, vigilant-and even more morose, irritable, or outright violent-than the norm." If the orchid hypothesis is true, then perhaps a certain number of people who react extremely strongly to their environment, even if these reactions seem negative to our modern eyes, may be important to the flexibility and survival of our species. But what I found most interesting about Dobbs's piece was its implications for the individual. Dobbs writes of his decision to get tested for a gene variant that increases depression risk but may also confer orchid-like properties. A depression sufferer himself, he turned out to have the variant. Dobbs writes,

[A]s I sat absorbing this information, the chill came to seem less the coldness of fear than a shiver of abrupt and inverted self-knowledge-of suddenly knowing with certainty something I had long suspected, and finding that it meant something other than I thought it would. The orchid hypothesis suggested that this particular allele, the rarest and riskiest of the serotonin-transporter gene's three variants, made me not just more vulnerable but more plastic. And that new way of thinking changed things. I felt no sense that I carried a handicap that would render my efforts futile should I again face deep trouble. In fact, I felt a heightened sense of agency. Anything and everything I did to improve my own environment and experience-every intervention I ran on myself, as it were-would have a magnified effect. In that light, my short/short allele now seems to me less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than like a springboard-slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.

In this early age of genetic testing, it's easy to think of genes simplistically — and since most testing is still meant to predict disease, our genotypes sometimes begin to seem like maps full of danger signs. But human beings (and monkeys, too) are extraordinarily complicated, and what seems like a risk may also be a blessing. We still tend to see depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mood and behavioral abnormalities as defects — if a child is "at risk" for one of these, she needs to be protected as though from a gathering storm. Yet to be at risk may also be to have a unique opportunity.

If the orchid hypothesis is true, then people like Dobbs may possess a plasticity that makes them more vulnerable to sorrow and yet also more capable of change. This would have enormous implications for those suffering from certain mental ailments. Perhaps along with their difficulties, their genes have granted them a tool for solving them — and beyond that, for reaching new heights of personal fulfillment. It would also have an impact on how we raise and teach kids. Some have already speculated that children with ADHD need something different from the one-size-fits-all American educational model. If it's true that some kids are uniquely influenced by environment, then maybe what we need is not to try to make them more like other kids — the current approach — but rather to construct the environment that will best help them thrive. This is likely to be difficult, and expensive, and for these reasons it may not catch on. But we might have much to gain, both as individuals and as a society, by seeing a springboard where we once saw a trapdoor.

The Science Of Success [Atlantic]