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dobbspic I write on science, medicine, nature, culture and other matters for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, and other publications. (Find clips here.) I've also written three books, including Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which traces the strangest but most forgotten controversy in Darwin's career — an elemental dispute running some 75 years. Oliver Sacks found Reef Madness "brilliantly written, almost unbearably poignant." Check it out.

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« Orchids and dandelions on the Brian Lehrer Show | Main | Top Five Posts at Neuron Culture in November »

Coming sort of soon to a bookstore near you: "The Orchid and the Dandelion"

Posted on: December 7, 2009 9:33 AM, by David Dobbs


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.

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Congratulations! That is wonderful news. :)

Posted by: Laelaps | December 7, 2009 9:56 AM


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.

Posted by: becca | December 7, 2009 11:30 AM


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!

Posted by: David Boulton | December 7, 2009 4:07 PM


w00t! Can't wait!

Posted by: Coturnix | December 7, 2009 4:10 PM


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.

Posted by: ec313 | December 7, 2009 7:19 PM


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

Posted by: OftenWrongTed | December 7, 2009 7:22 PM


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.

Posted by: David Dobbs | December 8, 2009 5:47 AM


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:

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.

Posted by: Christopher Carr | December 8, 2009 10:05 AM


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.

Posted by: madevans | December 11, 2009 12:14 AM


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

Posted by: Dış Cephe | December 11, 2009 5:35 AM


Awesome news. I'll be preordering...

Posted by: Neuroskeptic | December 18, 2009 4:44 AM

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