Neuron Culture

Over at the Times Magazine Motherlode blog, Lisa Belkin ran a short post about my Atlantic “Orchid Children” piece a couple days ago, and some of the responses she got strike to an issue that has come up quite a few other places. I posted a note on this at Motherlode, and wanted to expand on it a bit here as well. This is the first what may be several posts of the “FAQ” sort examining reader or blogger concerns.

In this case, the concern dominating the Motherlode commenter thread responses, and in a few other places as well, is whether the “Orchid Children” of my title are what many people call “gifted” children (defined roughly as very smart kids who have behavioral issues requiring some special handling). The short answer to this question — that is, whether by “orchid children” I mean smart-but-difficult — is No.

The hypothesis examined in the article is about temperament, not intelligence. And although it is obviously a work-in-progress (we are talking about an emerging hypothesis, after all), the presumption is that the greater temperamental and behavioral plasticity created by these especially plastic ‘orchid’ gene variants is largely separate from the effects of genetic factors affecting raw cognitive assets. Having the more plastic serotonin transporter gene, for instance, will make you either more or less susceptible to depression depending on your experience, but it does not make you smarter (or less smart). Likewise with other genes affecting attention/distractibility or aggression/sociability. In fact, as one Motherlode commenter pointed out, strong cognitive assets are generally protective against mood and behavioral disorders, not risk factors for same.)

So, no, the ‘orchid-y’ does not mean ‘gifted.’ A difficult person who’s smarter than average may behave differently than he would if he were less intelligent; his difficult behaviors might be more complex. But, by this hypothesis, anyway, he’s not difficult because he’s smart.

Yet I’ve seen not just on this Motherlode thread but elsewhere that a lot of people tend to conflate these issues of temperament and intelligence. This conflation is understandable, I guess, given the prevalance and power of the idea of a problematic “giftedness” in our culture. But it misses the essence of what this hypothesis is about.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. We all tend to press our existing frames for the world on anything unfamiliar. And that’s all the more likely if your conception of a complicated, multdimensional dynamic is drawn from a 700-word blog synopsis of a 7,200-word article that was itself damn near too short for the job. In any case, this speaks to the difficulty of finding a frame or metaphor that can replace one over-simplistic paradigm (these certain gene variants confer only a downside) without being co-opted by another (that some difficult children are difficult because they’re smart).

Comments? Chime in here. And you may want to check in on the interesting post and comments at Motherlode as well.

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    December 9, 2009

    Gifted children are not the same as ‘orchid’ children, nor are they marked by behavioral issues.

    I was classified as profoundly gifted during my childhood. I am currently a well-adjusted neurobiology student. I am also planning to study the genetics of intelligence in graduate school.

    The only behavioral issues I ever had were things stemming from depression during the first 20 years of my life as a result of the rather unique social issues surrounding being several standard deviations above the mean in IQ. I did not have autism or Asperger’s or anything else and was generally described as a good kid. None of my problems were endogenous.

    There is a slightly higher incidence in gifted individuals than in the general population of certain problems; how these are connected, I don’t know.

    But orchid and indigo children piss me off.

  2. #2 becca
    December 9, 2009

    I think part of what you are seeing is a reflection that there is an existing cultural meme that lack of abilities in one respect ‘ought’ to be compensated for by exceptional abilities in another area. It can be the seemingly ‘intuitive’ stereotype of keen hearing in the visually impaired. It can be the ‘difficult genius’ stereotype. Or you could even see it with new research on bipolar disorder describing bipolar patients as ‘impaired’ in the cognitive empathy dimension but ‘over empathizing’ in the emotive empathy dimension.

    Most people, perhaps especially children, want to be exceptional. And it seems many parents also want their children to be exceptional.
    (I find this the best, albeit probably apocryphal, illustration: The Dali Llama was asked “As a child, did you know of your central role in the universe?”. He replied “All children know they are the center of the universe”).
    My first question upon hearing about this was ‘well, in some respects that sounds like it could be me, but how would I know?’

  3. #3 DrA
    December 9, 2009

    “Orchid” is a poor choice. In their native habitats, most orchids are as tough as nails, often living in some very challenging places and part of the climax community. Dandelions on the other hand are weeds, adapted to disturbance by concentrating on reproduction. Try growing a dandelion in your house next to an orchid, and you’ll find the former much more difficult than the latter. And it’s a matter of taste really whether yellow pom-poms that cheerfully light up the spring are less spectacular than often tiny orchid flowers.
    You want a delicate plant, I’d go with a filmy fern.

  4. #4 Emily
    December 9, 2009

    @becca: I think the technical term for what you’re describing is “special snowflake syndrome”, at least as it applies to children(or for that matter young adults) themselves wanting to be special. Personally, I was one of those “gifted” “problem children” when I was little, and at times I came to believe that I was not only special, but superior. These days, I’m tempted to say “Yeah, that’s me!” when reading about orchids, indigo children, and the like, but I’m cautious about doing so.

    (Perhaps worth noting: the newly discovered tiny transparent orchid, Platystele, kind of looks like a snowflake.)

  5. #5 Katharine
    December 9, 2009

    “I think part of what you are seeing is a reflection that there is an existing cultural meme that lack of abilities in one respect ‘ought’ to be compensated for by exceptional abilities in another area.”

    This, and the converse, are widespread cultural memes, to the detriment of everybody.

  6. #6 Miss Cellania
    December 9, 2009

    Correct me if I’m wrong -I was in college 30 years ago, but I distinctly recall “gifted” defined as having an IQ between “bright normal” and “genius”, with no particular behavioral components. I remember because that’s where I fell.

    Now I am off to find out what orchid children are.

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    December 10, 2009

    Miss Cellenia (if that really IS your name … (kidding)), ‘gifted’ has meant a lot of things over the years, sometimes meaning just high-IQ, sometimes precociously talented, and sometimes those things with behavioral quirks or challenges. The latter definition — smart with challenges — is the one that seemed to get applied to the orchid dynamic in the Motherlode and many other posts, and the one I responded to.

    About.com has an informative run-down of the different definitions at http://giftedkids.about.com/od/gifted101/a/definitions.htm.

  8. #8 Barn Owl
    December 10, 2009

    On the internet, no one knows you’re a dandelion.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 10, 2009

    Dude, I totally enjoyed your Atlantic article! To be honest, until I saw this blog post, I hadn’t realized you wrote it; I must not have paid attention to the by-line.

  10. #10 David Dobbs
    December 10, 2009

    Oh yes: A few botany fans have complained about the use of ‘orchids’ for the more enviromentally sensitive phenotypes. I think they’re either misunderstanding or not reading the article. The point is not that orchids are more delicate. It’s that their reactions to environment/habitat tend to be more exaggerated than those of more dandelion-ish temperament. Botanists keep telling me I have this all wrong, and that orchids are actually extremely hardy in their native habitats — that is, in the habitats that fit them. Above, for instance, DrA writes, “”Orchid” is a poor choice. In their native habitats, most orchids are as tough as nails, often living in some very challenging places and part of the climax community.”

    That’s precisely the point of the hypothesis: that in the right environment (habitat) orchids are extremely hardy.

  11. #11 madevans
    December 10, 2009

    Your Atlantic article was amazing. Now, take the hypothesis and put it into a book that the public at large can understand!

  12. #12 Tacroy
    December 11, 2009

    But orchid and indigo children piss me off.

    These days, I’m tempted to say “Yeah, that’s me!” when reading about orchids, indigo children, and the like, but I’m cautious about doing so.

    Orchid and Indigo are entirely different terms. “Orchid” is a term coined to express this particular novel developmental hypothesis, intriguing (and undeniable) initial results.

    “Indigo” is a term coined to express a new-age certainty that your developmentally challenged kid is secretly special or more evolved or an alien or a reincarnation of Gandhi or whatever bullshit you want to believe today.

    They are entirely different.

  13. #13 Azkyroth
    December 11, 2009

    While my experience has been subjected and potentially biased, I think there’s a strain of anti-intellectualism in our culture so vicious and virulent that simply being visibly intelligent may lead to a child being considered “difficult,” or to behaviors by others that the child’s natural reactions to will be interpreted as being “difficult.”

  14. #14 Vasha
    December 11, 2009

    To continue with the botanical sidetracking, the reason that orchids are hard to grow outside their habitat is that they’re obligate parasites of fungi, and in the way of parasites, very host-specific. If you’re trying to grow an orchid without the right species of fungus, you’re in trouble.

  15. #15 SwitchedOnMom
    December 11, 2009

    I’m another person who read the article and leapt to connect it to aspects of profound giftedness. How does your hypothesis relate to the Dabrowski’s theory of overexcitabilities?

    http://themorechild.com/2009/10/12/anxiety-and-giftedness/

  16. #16 Donna B.
    December 12, 2009

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Atlantic article, but not the Times synopsis… especially the question asked at the end. Frankly, she asked for the gifted/difficult interpretation.

    My father is one of the most fascinating people I know. I suspect that had he ever been tested, he would fall in the genius range… his mother also. Gifted, at minimum.

    After reading the Atlantic article, I wouldn’t classify either of them as orchids. They are both definitely the type that plays the hand they’ve been dealt. That doesn’t mean they were averse to counting the cards or trying to stack the deck.

    Where I am fortunate is that I grew up in this family structure my grandmother (and her 2nd husband, my step-grandfather) created. At Granny’s house, we were free-range children with well-defined boundaries. Since my father ended up with 13 siblings (whole, half, and step) there were a LOT of grandchildren.

    The amazing thing is that most of us cousins thought we were our grandparents’ “favorite”. I can’t say that dynamic was the same where my or my cousins’ parents were concerned, but I am amazed at my grandparents’ ability to give and nurture in that way.

    (I don’t mean to hold my grandmother up as a saint. She wasn’t. She played favorites among her children and step-children, but never seemed to let that filter down to the grandchildren… and I wonder about that sometimes. My step-grandfather — if he ever had a favorite, none of his children or step-children knew it as far as I can determine. He may be a saint.)

    I do have a point… I think. It is this — for humans, patriarchs and matriarchs span generations. How much does plasticity depend on multiple sources of nourishment?

  17. #17 Emily
    December 13, 2009

    @Tacroy: I was referring to the behavioral/personality aspects of the “Indigo children”(per Wikipedia: “empathetic, curious, possess a clear sense of self-definition and purpose, strong-willed, independent, often perceived by friends or family as being weird[...] having a strong feeling of entitlement [...] a high intelligence quotient, an inherent intuitive ability, and resistance to authority”), not the New Age beliefs meant to follow from those.

  18. #18 becca
    December 13, 2009

    @Vasha- so when we find the endogenous virus* that modifies the microglia to alter neuronal serotonin gene expression responsible for the behavioral phenomemon of ‘orchids’, will we start delibrately infecting people with it after geonotyping them?

    (*kidding! Partially. The idea of background microbial infections modifying personality is probably understudied- the toxoplamosis/schizophrenia link has always been interesting to me. But I’m just pulling the virus out of thin air.)

    @SwitchedOnMom- it seems to me that many of the biologically-prone-to-depression phenotypes overlap with the biologically-prone-to-anxiety phenotypes, and certainly some of what we know about serotnin signaling suggests a link. That said, I haven’t seen any evidence that greater sensory perception is associated with serotonin.
    I think *lots* of kids end up with sensory systems that are orders of magnitude more sensitive than their parents; part of that is that deterioration is usually so slow older people don’t notice what they’ve lost, part is that the range in different humans is really just that large.

  19. #19 Pete
    December 14, 2009

    From the Atlantic article:

    A year after the intervention ended, the toddlers who’d received it had reduced their externalizing scores by more than 16 percent, while a nonintervention control group improved only about 10 percent (as expected, due to modest gains in self-control with age).

    Was that a significant effect? 16% versus 10% doesn’t sound that high to me..

  20. #20 David Dobbs
    December 14, 2009

    Pete asks:

    From the Atlantic article:

    A year after the intervention ended, the toddlers who’d received it had reduced their externalizing scores by more than 16 percent, while a nonintervention control group improved only about 10 percent (as expected, due to modest gains in self-control with age).

    Was that a significant effect? 16% versus 10% doesn’t sound that high to me.

    16% is a 60% increase over 10%. That’s significant.

  21. #21 Heather
    December 14, 2009

    I think a big (and old) misconception is that giftedness doesn’t include behavioral components or issues. It absolutely does.

    We could debate the differences between academically gifted and intellectually gifted, and subsequent behavior depending on the type, and whether the school environment favors a female style of learning, etc. etc. But, really, does anyone care?

    Many of the behaviors “orchids” are described as having are some of the same behaviors “gifted” children are described as having, as ADHD is described, as Asperger’s is described. as is Indigo, etc.

    All these theories (and yes, I’m calling ADHD and Asperger’s theories too) cross over each other in so many ways. Is it something akin to saying a zebra is white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

    I guess I don’t see the point in splitting hairs over what it is called. All children need a good growth environment to be successful, however success is defined. These “orchid” children (yep, I’m raising one, gifted, whatever you want to call him), do need a different parenting style than a “neurotypical” kid (yep, I’m raising one of those too.)

    Shouldn’t the point of these type studies be to help parents like me learn additional ways to support our out-of-the-box children instead of arguing semantics?

    Pardon me for dumbing down this post, but, as a parent, I find the semantic argument frustrating. I won’t speak for other parents, but I sure would like new insight in how to handle these “temperament” differences other than the current medical model of dysfunction.

    (By the way, David, thank you for the insightful article. For me, it confirmed things I have believed about my son for years now.)

  22. #22 Heather
    December 14, 2009

    Also, thanks to @Vasha for the explanation of the correct type of fungus needed to properly grow an orchid.

    Now, at the beginning of the school year when I’m getting to know the new teacher, I will think of him or her as a fungus. And now I’m wondering if his dad and I are fungus-y enough.

    (Humor is the only thing that gets you through sometimes.)

  23. #23 Susan
    February 5, 2010

    Dear David, I read your Atlantic orchid article on the plane after having spent a frustrating month with my grandson. It was a revelation. How can I test his saliva?

  24. #24 David Dobbs
    February 8, 2010

    Susan,

    No short answer to the saliva-test question, as there’s no clear established path to getting a SERT assay outside of clinical trials and studies. I’ll try to get a longer one posted here when I finish this other long story I’m in the midst of, which I hope to be this week.

  25. #25 sc
    March 23, 2010

    As a teacher who has worked with gifted children and a mother of a lovely little orchid I would like to point out that being gifted is not just about being smart. Being highly emotionally sensitive, or “more emotionally endowed” as Daniels, et. al put it in “Living With Intensity” (a book about the gifted that you really should check out), is also a form of giftedness regardless of IQ.

  26. #26 PEMBE MASKE
    June 15, 2011

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