Below I’ve excerpted portions from David Dobbs’ Atlantic magazine article, “The Science of Success” and reproduced them in black. Under each short excerpt I’ve added commentary of my own in blue, mostly looking through the lens of social neuroscience. Feel free to excerpt and add commentary of your own as you feel so inspired.
Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.
My best guess here is that early environments that are wittingly and unwittingly abusive and/or neglectful, create conditions that significantly disorganize optimal early neural development. If you watch any number of the Strange Situation videos done by attachment researchers, you can see mothers doing things that are really mismatched with their child’s needs, often with little or no awareness at all. As a result, the brains of such children have to construct a lot of “workarounds” – later potentially resulting in uncommon creativity and potential life success, but very often at great costs. These costs can later show up in depressed, drug-addicted or criminal actions. Might it be one reason so many artists grow up as tortured individuals?
Addressing Externalized Behavior
In 2004, Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, a professor of child and family studies at Leiden University, started carrying a video camera into homes of families whose 1-to-3-year-olds indulged heavily in the oppositional, aggressive, uncooperative, and aggravating behavior that psychologists call “externalizing”: whining, screaming, whacking, throwing tantrums and objects, and willfully refusing reasonable requests. Staple behaviors in toddlers, perhaps. But research has shown that toddlers with especially high rates of these behaviors are likely to become stressed, confused children who fail academically and socially in school, and become antisocial and unusually aggressive adults.
Externalizing behaviors suggest that these children’s brains are less robustly organized than most, thus they do not have even the rudimentary connections required for self-regulating and soothing themselves. This is where a parent’s ability to creatively experiment and find ways that actually do work to soothe such children is critical. Without such early interventions, a series of increasingly challenging behavioral problems are inevitably in store. Some neuroscientists, like Eric Kandel, Norman Doidge and even Freud himself, would argue that providing frequent soothing and emotional regulation until a child can do it for themselves is the first work of parenting, essential for extending the influence of the prefrontal cortex.
To the researchers’ delight, the intervention worked. The moms, watching the videos, learned to spot cues they’d missed before, or to respond differently to cues they’d seen but had reacted to poorly. Quite a few mothers, for instance, had agreed only reluctantly to read picture books to their fidgety, difficult kids, saying they wouldn’t sit still for it. But according to Bakermans-Kranenburg, when these mothers viewed the playback they were “surprised to see how much pleasure it was for the child—and for them.” Most mothers began reading to their children regularly, producing what Bakermans-Kranenburg describes as “a peaceful time that they had dismissed as impossible.”
And the bad behaviors dropped. 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).
Simply getting older isn’t the critical variable here. It’s enriching neurons that make increasing connections that allow the brain to process more energy and information, much of it in the service of self-regulation for these kids. Also, while they can admittedly be challenging, externalized behaviors aren’t “bad.” They represent the best a child can do given the state of his or her brain development at the time.
And the mothers’ responses to their children became more positive and constructive.
From my perspective, this is one key piece of the research. A parent’s ability to positively regulate their own emotional state in the face of externalizing behaviors is essential for skillfully “pacing and leading” a child towards positive, neuron-connecting and enriching behaviors.
The Power of Vulnerability
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.
The good news is that brain plasticity and an environment’s ability to affect protein expression in genes means that positive changes are possible throughout the lifespan. Redemption knows no age limit, assuming it’s provided with supportive, conducive environs.
Though this hypothesis is new to modern biological psychiatry, it can be found in folk wisdom, as the University of Arizona developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and the University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce pointed out last year in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The Swedes, Ellis and Boyce noted in an essay titled “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” have long spoken of “dandelion” children. These dandelion children—equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.
What exactly is optimal “Greenhouse Care?” I have argued here that it’s anything that serves to enrich neural growth and connectivity. Two primary caring behaviors are communicating contingently and repeatedly answering the Big Brain Question “Yes.” Here’s a compelling example of both, demonstrated by a dad who discovered at birth that his baby son had no eyeballs, and elbows that didn’t work: Patrick Hughes.
Optimizing Species Survival
In this view, having both dandelion and orchid kids greatly raises a family’s (and a species’) chance of succeeding, over time and in any given environment. The behavioral diversity provided by these two different types of temperament also supplies precisely what a smart, strong species needs if it is to spread across and dominate a changing world. The many dandelions in a population provide an underlying stability. The less-numerous orchids, meanwhile, may falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them. And even when they lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.
Children born and being raised today are going to grow up in a world of accelerating and increasing complexity, requiring considerable adaptive flexibility. In times of greater international involvement diplomatically and commercially, in order to face challenges produced by dwindling resources and global warming, in order to effectively meet and address unexpected environmental and meteorological crises, dandelion children and orchid children are going to have to understand and partner with one another as never before in human history. The current crisis in Haiti is a prime example.
This orchid hypothesis also answers a fundamental evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis cannot. If variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out. Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The vulnerability hypothesis can’t account for this. The orchid hypothesis can.
This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.
It’s unlikely that these genes involved with despair, alienation and cruelty are going to go away anytime soon. One wise strategy is to learn about them, embrace them and research and practice the best evidence-based methods of “greenhouse care” we’re capable of. And to pass those methods of optimal care from parent to parent to parent.
As it turned out, the toddlers with the risk allele blew right by their counterparts. They cut their externalizing scores by almost 27 percent, while the protective-allele kids cut theirs by just 12 percent (improving only slightly on the 11 percent managed by the protective-allele population in the control group). The upside effect in the intervention group, in other words, was far larger than the downside effect in the control group. Risk alleles, the Leiden team concluded, really can create not just risk but possibility.
Can liability really be so easily turned to gain? The pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce, who has worked with many a troubled child in more than three decades of child-development research, says the orchid hypothesis “profoundly recasts the way we think about human frailty.” He adds, “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?”
What this suggests to me is that we have a HUGE international human resource going completely to waste, literally and figuratively. They are essentially housed away in prisons all over the world. I’m making an educated guess that the world’s prisons are full of people with the risk allele, falling on the Orchid side of the scale. I would also hypothesize that a preponderance of them, if placed in an appropriate Greenhouse environment, could make an extraordinary contribution to our world.
Berman saw that when rhesus troops are small, the mothers can let their young play freely, because strangers rarely approach. But as a troop grows and the number of family groups rises, strangers or semi-strangers more often come near. The adult females become more vigilant, defensive, and aggressive. The kids and adult males follow suit. More and more monkeys receive upbringings that draw out the less sociable sides of their behavioral potentials; fights grow more common; rivalries grow more tense. Things finally get so bad that the troop must split. “And that’s what happened here,” Suomi said. “It’s a very extensive feedback system. What happens at the dyadic level, between mother and infant, ultimately affects the very nature and survival of the larger social group.”
This may perhaps be the central point to take away from this study: “What happens at the dyadic level, between mother and infant, ultimately affects the very nature and survival of the larger social group.” And based on many studies over many years, what happens between mother and infant during the first three years has effects that continue through a child’s entire lifespan. The really unfortunate reality is that a preponderance of child abuse actually takes place in the first three years. When that happens, home no longer remains a safe sanctuary for optimal neural growth. But, if we are to meet the challenges of our collective unfolding future, attention must be paid, and it must be paid throughout this extremely critical period in human development.