“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,