Neuron Culture

i-ac06841f7b686924d927d4eebe16bb7a-OrchidBabe.jpg

I’m happy to announce that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of many a fine book over the decades, will be publishing “The Orchid and the Dandelion” (working title), in which I’ll explore further the emerging “orchid-dandelion hypothesis” I wrote about in my recent Atlantic story. (In brief, that hypothesis — a simple but deeply transformative amendment of current views — hoids that many ‘risk genes’ for behavior and mental problems magnify not just maladaptive responses to bad environments but advantageous responses to good environments. That is, these “risk genes” confer not just vulnerability, but greater responsiveness, sometimes to bad effect, sometimes to good.)

I’ll be working with editor Amanda Cook, whom I met at the sensible urging of my compadre Jonah Lehrer. No publication date yet set, and I’m not crazy enough to promise one here. It will, of course, take some time. But if the Atlantic story left you wanting to read more about this hypothesis, and about how genetics and environment constantly interact to create everything from murder and madness to benevolence and high art, ye shall be satsified — soon as I get a bit of work done. Okay, a lot of work. (I’m on it. Don’t rush me.)

Meanwhile, I’ll use Orchid Neuron Culture to share ruminations on research and reading; published studies old and new that relate to the bidirectional sensitivity emphasized by the hypothesis; outtakes, sidetracks, etc — in short, a parallel but non-duplicative exploration of this emerging hypothesis, its study, and its implications.

I’ll start here and now, with a dip into the many responses I got to the article. I’ve never before received so robust or various a response to an article. The many emails, conversations, blog posts, and tweets confirmed what I sensed when I first encountered this idea at a conference this past March: It recasts much of one’s thinking about human behavior and evolution. I’ve heard from psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians; parents, of course; quite a few teachers; lactation consultants; geneticists and endocrinologists and neurologists; and plenty of people who say the piece changed the way they think about themselves, their kids, their siblings’ kids, friends, lovers, spouses, strangers, depression, happiness — you name it. (I’m still answering some of these emails, and will answer all; forgive me if I’ve not yet got back to yours.) There are, as someone put it, a lot of payloads in this idea — implications in all sorts of realms.

Some of the more notable responses I got regardedd parenting. One reader articulated particularly well some of the implications for raising kids:

I recognized my kids in this article. My oldest, in particular, was difficult practically from birth. I think I spent the fist 6 years of his life fending off suggestions from a wide variety of people that there was something wrong with him. “Stubborn is just the other side of determined and overly emotional is just an undisciplined way of being passionate,” I used to say. My philosophy was that my job is to help my kids be who they are (highly emotional, active, stubborn, neurotic, etc) in a way which will work for them in this world we’re living in. My two boys are now 14 and 10 and are actually doing quite well. My 14 year old in particular is shockingly mature for a boy his age. He’s still working some things out, but I do believe that in a few years when it’s time for him to really go out into the world, he’s going to be an amazing person. I also believe that he would have been completely destroyed in an environment with parents who were less able to really work intensively with him to turn his less desirable traits into positives. But, I have to say that raising orchids is HARD work. I wouldn’t really want to go back and start over for much of anything.

She was one of several emailers and bloggers to note that this orchid hypothesis, while a significant, even fundamental amendment to a major tenet of today’s behavioral science, in some ways simply confirms dynamics and truths we already recognize. It squares main strands of modern science (biological psychiatry, behavioral genetics) with a more intuitive sense of behavior, firming up the boundaries of each. This makes the science feel more accurate, useful, and complete. And it provides a harder explanation of behavior that can otherwise seem out of character.

To take a trivial but stark example, consider my 5-year-old daughter. (I won’t do this too often.) She’s a bit like the girl with the curl in her forehead. She engages the world with a tremendous energy that is, the vast majority of the time, delightful to be exposed to — lots of light, laughter, movement, imagination, and chatter — organized, purposeful, and ardent. It’s usually wonderful to be around. Yet the blue sky can fast fill with twisters. After starting the day by kissing everyone, chatting amiably at breakfast, and cheerfully clearing her plate and brushing her teeth, she can, without warning, melt down completely, loudly, and apparently irretrievably because — lo! no! disaster! — the tops of her socks do not fit smoothly over the bottoms of her leggings. No words will assuage, no clothes will do. The front hall grows is loud and crowded, the day dark, and the walk to school, if it ever happens, a grim prospect.

Right about then it’s easy to wonder what on earth is wrong with this child? This is just insane behavior. How can someone so delightful be so horrid. Maddening. Something’s amiss.

She’s only five, of course, and we should expect such things. But …. well, you try it.

Yet I find found this orchid idea makes this situation — seemingly impossible, inexplicable, endless — easier to deal with. It suddenly makes sense. She hasn’t become unhinged; she’s just being irritated with the same energy with which she’s usually cheerful. It’ll pass. And it’ll pass faster if I treat it as not, certainly, something to be approved of or indulged, but as something to be expected now and then, and accepted not as “acceptable behavior” but as part of the spectrum into which this girl throws her light.

This is not the same as saying, “Oh well, that’s X being X.,” and indulging such behavior. It just means staying calm and reasonable (which is, after all, where I want her to end up) and looking for hints of the path I know that she’ll take eventually — the one back to cheerfulness — and giving her a nudge down it. The main and most important variable a parent can control in these situations, it seems to me, is how calm the parent stays. Things go better, end faster, and leave less sense of a day or an hour ruined, in proportion to the parent’s ability to stay calm. And the meltdowns pass as bumps — something everyone understands the child will grow out of — rather than painful memories.

I want to note too that recognizing this sensitivity doesn’t necessarily mean parents need to be super-parents. “Oh great, environment is crucial!” one friend said to me after she read the article. “More pressure on the parent.” Well, sort of. As the above-mentioned mother of the passionated, determined 14-year-old notes, parenting a highly sensitive or reactive kid can be taxing. But that doesn’t mean the parents must be be perfect. Many of the studies show that you don’t need an extraordinary environment to transform an orchid gene from a\ vulnerability into a shield — to produce more resistance to depression, for instance, in a kid who carries the S/S SERT allele. Those studies show that simply not having major, intense, or repeated large stressors or traumas gets you to the upside. The parents don’t necessarily have to be super-parents; in most cases they just have to be fair to good. As privileofparenting put it in a thoughtful response to the article,

Kids with sensitive genes are easier to mess up because they are highly sensitive to virtually all experiences. As parents, however, we don’t need to be brilliant to parent brilliant kids well–we need to be calm, loving, attuned and engaged.

More later.

Meantime, you can read the article here or, if you’re more a radio-listener type, listen to my 20-minute visit with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and his visitors here:

*Houghton Mifflin IHarcourt press release Publisher’s Marketplace, behind paywall.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    December 7, 2009

    Congratulations! That is wonderful news. :)

  2. #2 becca
    December 7, 2009

    First: Wonderful news, and after reading that article I eagerly await the book.
    Second: The image at the top of this post is completely gorgeous.

  3. #3 David Boulton
    December 7, 2009

    Yes, congrats ++ I agree with the comment about the image. I’ve been sharing the “Orchid Hypothesis” ever since I encountered it. I think we could say the same thing about ‘learning’ that you are describing with ‘sensitive genes’ – learning can be very positively adaptive and/or it can be darkly maladaptive. My work is about what I call ‘stewarding the HEALTH of our children’s learning’ and your work resonates well with its key points. I will be watching and learning as you continue to unfold this work… again congrats on getting a publisher!

  4. #4 Coturnix
    December 7, 2009

    w00t! Can’t wait!

  5. #5 ec313
    December 7, 2009

    First, congratulations! I loved your article, and can’t wait for the book. I was wondering if you were going to touch on learning disabilities in your book. In my experience, many learning disabilities may mean a kid has difficulty fitting in with the mainstream school model, but it also means a different way of thinking that can be a huge asset in the right conditions.

  6. #6 OftenWrongTed
    December 7, 2009

    Congratulations, I’m looking forward to your new book.

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    December 8, 2009

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. ec313, I can’t say yet whether I’ll get into learning disabilities in the book — though I suspect it’s not likely to receive a lot of attention or be a main focus, as it’s a sort of spectrum that doesn’t seem to line up well with the behavioral/mood/temperamental issues that are closer to the book’s heart. Though, as you note, some learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, appear to be cognitive styles, if you will, that can have upsides depending on upbringing and context, just as the different temperaments discussed in the article can.

  8. #8 Christopher Carr
    December 8, 2009

    Hello Mr. Dobbs. I thoroughly enjoyed your article in the Atlantic and look forward to the book. I have shared your article through my website here: http://www.theinductive.com/blog/2009/12/8/orchids-and-dandelions.html

    I want to thank you for reporting this news. I grew up during the nineties, when the idea of giving children medication for behavioral problems started to go mainstream. I have many friends who suffered through school only to realize that their callings were not academic. I have long felt that giving children behavior-modifying medications during their formative years will someday be seen in the same light as lobotomies and electric-shock therapy.

    Undoubtedly, seeing children who think and behave differently as orchids instead of problems for teachers is a step in the right direction. It is both moral, and, thanks to the recent research which you reported, scientific.

  9. #9 madevans
    December 11, 2009

    Congrats! I was just commenting on another blog of yours urging you to consider writing a book about this. I’m looking forward to reading it in the (hopefully) near, but not-too-near (you’ve got to spend time with the kids, right?), future.

  10. #10 Dış Cephe
    December 11, 2009

    I’m looking forward to your new book.Thanks a lot.

  11. #11 Neuroskeptic
    December 18, 2009

    Awesome news. I’ll be preordering…

  12. #12 Toby
    April 15, 2010

    I love the idea of a book. Thank you. I just want to add that I think that in the book ‘raising your spirited child’ shows how every difficult trait has a positive side and it is worth a read and meshes well with the theory.
    I also wonder if any neuroscientific research is going on regarding Sensory Processing Disorder and the genetic underpinnings. Because a lot of this externalizing behviours is now being labeled sensory issues (i think it is the new fad after ADD is falling out of style).
    And the orchid metephor actually goes quite well with a child who has sensory issues (temperature, light/dark, amount of water etc.. it almost makes me laugh).

  13. #13 Cancerversaey Jewelry
    October 23, 2010

    Congratulations, I’m looking forward to your new book.

  14. #14 Flipping House
    October 23, 2010

    Congrats! I was just commenting on another blog of yours urging you to consider writing a book about this. I’m looking forward to reading it in the (hopefully) near, but not-too-near (you’ve got to spend time with the kids, right?), future.

  15. #15 Love Quotes
    October 23, 2010

    Congratulations! That is wonderful, thanks

  16. #16 Marco
    October 23, 2010

    I was wondering if you were going to touch on learning disabilities in your book.

  17. #17 Amber Jewelry
    October 23, 2010

    I love the idea of a book. Thank you.

  18. #18 Oyunu oyna
    November 10, 2010

    Congrats! I was just commenting on another blog of yours urging you to consider writing a book about this. I’m looking forward to reading it in the (hopefully) near, but not-too-near (you’ve got to spend time with the kids, right?), future.

  19. #19 BakireTR
    December 9, 2010

    Congrats! I was just commenting on another blog of yours urging you to consider writing a book about this. I’m looking forward to reading it in the (hopefully)

  20. #20 HEMOREX BASUR HAPI
    June 17, 2011

    Tebrikler! Sadece bu konuda bir kitap yazmayı düşünün sizi çağıran senin başka bir blog hakkında yorum oldu. Gelecekte, (sağa, çocuklarla vakit geçirmek için var?) (Umarım)

  21. #21 ORJİNAL GAİN MAX
    June 17, 2011

    Tebrikler! Sadece bu konuda bir kitap yazmayı düşünün sizi çağıran senin başka bir blog hakkında yorum oldu. Gelecekte, (sağa, çocuklarla vakit geçirmek için var?) (Umarım)

  22. #22 PARSLEY 7
    June 17, 2011

    n the one island, how does the east shore compare to the west? Is this phenomenon observed only in this area due to the proximity of a popular hawk nesting site?

    And what about during mating season? The researchers tested playback on clusters of females and juveniles, reportedly the hawks’ coveted target. During mating season, though, male A. cristatus turn bright red. This makes them more visible on the rock face; I wonder if it makes them more attractive targets too. Does it alter the hawks’ feeding preferences? Does it change the listening dynamics among the iggies???

  23. about during mating season? The researchers tested playback on clusters of females and juveniles, reportedly the hawks’ coveted target. During mating season, though, male A. cristatus turn bright red. This makes them more visible on the rock face; I wonder if it makes them more attractive targets too. Does it alter the hawks’ feeding preferences? Does it change the listening ..