Orchids, daffodils, and mental illness

I ran across a fantastic article in The Atlantic, titled The Science of Success, which examines the genetics of mental illness. Writes David Dobbs:

Of special interest to the team was a new interpretation of one of the most important and influential ideas in recent psychiatric and personality research: that certain variants of key behavioral genes (most of which affect either brain development or the processing of the brain’s chemical messengers) make people more vulnerable to certain mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders. Bolstered over the past 15 years by numerous studies, this hypothesis, often called the “stress diathesis” or “genetic vulnerability” model, has come to saturate psychiatry and behavioral science. During that time, researchers have identified a dozen-odd gene variants that can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems—if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.

This vulnerability hypothesis, as we can call it, has already changed our conception of many psychic and behavioral problems. It casts them as products not of nature or nurture but of complex “gene-environment interactions.” Your genes don’t doom you to these disorders. But if you have “bad” versions of certain genes and life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.

Recently, however, an alternate hypothesis has emerged from this one and is turning it inside out. This new model suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts.
The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

(emphasis mine)

Dobbs explains that there are two differen types of children: "dandelions," those children with more reslient genes who will grow no matter where they are planted, and "orchids," those children who will wilt if neglected but will bloom magnificently in the right greenhouse.

"One lesson that geneticists know," writes evolutionary biologist jerry Coyne, "is that 'genetic' does not mean 'unchangeable.' "

Indeed it doesn't.

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Cathy (UK) said...

I like this article and I believe it makes a lot of theoretical sense. I especially like the positive slant to it, which provides a sense of hopefulness (cf. doom) to those like me who is likely 'blessed' with inherent vulnerabilities. If surrounded with positivity, support and the 'right' opportunities we can thrive and grow!

The beauty of the gene-environment model is that it doesn't focus on BLAME. BLAME seems to be a huge issue to many afflicted by EDs and their families. There are established groups of parents of children with EDs who seek to emphasise that parents are not to blame, and apart from the 'pro-anorexia' brigade, most people with EDs argue (as I do) that EDs are NOT lifestyle choices.

Last July I made a couple of videos on YouTube about the EDs and inherent risk. I received a number of private messages in response to these videos. As expected, some people were relieved that there may be a genetic explanation for their vulnerability and their suffering, while others were 'up in arms' and wished to stress that their ED had been triggered by parental abuse/divorce/pressure.

Can we blame anyone or anything for EDs? Abuse and bullying (not parental) were the environmental/social triggers for my anorexia nervosa, but I had many anxiety and obsessive-compulsive issues even before such trauma. Is it even worth trying to aportion blame?

Cammy said...

Really fascinating. After reading this quote:
“We see that when kids with this kind of vulnerability are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best—even better, that is, than their protective-allele peers. “Are there any enduring human frailties that don’t have this other, redemptive side to them?"

I wondered about the rising rates of medicating children with behavior problems. If they really are orchids, it seems that turning to drugs to alter their behavior could either stifle or stimulate their progress, depending on how warranted the medication was and how it is used. I have known some kids that were disturbingly zombie-like on their ADHD meds, although others that seemed fine.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter was young people close to us would say things like
"She is a diamond." "She really has something about her." "Is she always so alive?"
She is an orchid. This is a brilliant article, a great metaphor.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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