Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Science of Success: When Bad Genes Turn Good

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.

The evidence for this view is mounting. Much of it has existed for years, in fact, but the focus on dysfunction in behavioral genetics has led most researchers to overlook it. This tunnel vision is easy to explain, according to Jay Belsky, a child-development psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London. ???Most work in behavioral genetics has been done by mental-illness researchers who focus on vulnerability,??? he told me recently. ???They don???t see the upside, because they don???t look for it. It???s like dropping a dollar bill beneath a table. You look under the table, you see the dollar bill, and you grab it. But you completely miss the five that???s just beyond your feet.???

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.

At first glance, this idea, which I???ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it???s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness.

Curiously, almost verbatim, a good astrologer would tell you precisely the same thing: "The planets IMPELL, they do not COMPELL" and then the whole picture taken to balance the disparities and salve the anomalies to achieve that whole-system balance which contains all the elements. Is psychology finally catching up?

About twenty some years ago I had a conversation with an officer of a BC psychiatric org; at that time the darling of psychiatry was a notion called Dynamic Personality, an 'innovative' idea that proposed an extension to Piaget's levels of human development through to the adult years, postulating a growth to the human psyche. It was very novel. I pointed out that Shakespeare's Ages of a man speech had already outlined this idea, and what's more, any competent astrologer would be able to not only map the progress for specific people, but also, unlike psychiatry, the astrologer could make a prognosis as to when the condition would change, often an important motivator for people in trouble. Notice that change doesn't imply better or worse, only that the scene changes; what one then does with this 'genetic' program is still largely personal free-will, and just as with the 'interventions' in this article, one can augment one's free-will with information from the greater whole-system view.