The Orchid and the Dandelion, by W. Thomas Boyce

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“Most children are more or less like dandelions; they prosper and thrive almost anywhere they are planted. Like dandelions, these are the majority of children whose well-being is all but assured by their constitutional hardiness and strength. There are others, however, who, more like orchids, can wither and fade when unattended by caring support, but who – also like orchids – can become creatures of rare beauty, complexity, and elegance when met with compassion and kindness.”

Dr. Boyce’s work in childhood development was inspired by his personal family experience, where he had a robust childhood, while one of his sisters was much more fragile, and eventually fell apart under the effects of mental illness. How did two siblings who shared genes and a similar environment end up having such different paths?

Dr. Boyce did an early study to “search for the signal of stress effects on the physical health of children”, and what he found was confusing. He found a statistically significant correlation in the population of children he studied between the amount of stress and challenge they experienced, and the illnesses they faced…and yet it was noisier than he expected: “the data showed an overall linear trend for children’s experiences of adversity and stress to predict developmental and health outcomes. …On the other hand, the data points themselves showed how scattered and varied that association actually was.”

He and his colleagues spent several years trying to clean the “noise” from the data so that it was a more robust correlation, before realizing that the “noise” was a signal showing that different children had different levels of reactivity to their environment. In particular, about one in five children “showed startlingly higher levels of fight-or-flight and cortisol system responses” to the stimuli in their study, and those are the children that Dr. Boyce has labeled as orchids. These children are more sensitive (reactive) to their environment, and therefore experience higher levels of stress under adverse conditions (but can also shine brighter under beneficial conditions). For any human, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to increasing, cumulative disease risk over time, and these sensitive children were particularly vulnerable.

The book then offers more interesting correlations to this orchid/dandelion spectrum; the most surprising to me was that orchid children tended to have the temperature in their right ear be higher than their left, with dandelion children being the opposite. This correlation was even replicated in rhesus monkeys! Dr. Boyce explains that the right prefrontal cortex is more attuned to “emotion regulation” and “to the importance of contextual and relational aspects of experience”, so “greater orchid-like sensitivity was linked to a stronger activation of the brain region directly involved in negative emotionality and shy behavior”.

After sharing the physical evidence of the difference between orchid and dandelion children, Dr. Boyce then shares more subjective thoughts on how this difference arose. He starts with a discussion of why would it be evolutionarily viable to have these sensitive people, and why this didn’t get weeded out in natural selection. His theory is that this is a manifestation of group-level evolution – if everybody were sensitive, that would be challenging for survival, but those with special sensitivity “would have been protective to both individuals and social groups by virtue of [their] enhanced vigilance to danger and threat”. In other words, orchids could be the “canaries” for their tribes by being more sensitive to their environment, enhancing the group’s survival even while the orchids themselves may suffer more from illness.

Dr. Boyce takes it another step by discussing what makes a child show up as an orchid – is it genes or environment? His theory is that it’s a combination of genetics and epigenetics (how genes get expressed), such that an orchid is a combination of their DNA and their early environment. He claims to have preliminary evidence that orchids are more likely to show up in environments at the extremes, as their increased sensitivity would be a benefit in dangerous environments, and in safe, abundant environments, where their sensitivity would enable them to thrive spectacularly. This section seemed a little speculative to me, as it’s hard to make any claims with regard to epigenetics given the truly absurd number of interactions that occur in the expression of genes.

I don’t think this book delivers on its subtitle, “Why Some Children Struggle, and How All Can Thrive”, as the advice for parents to create a supportive, loving, stable environment for children seems pretty generic. But I did enjoy this exploration into how the combination of genes and environment can elicit very different responses from people, and why that variation might exist. I particularly liked that Dr. Boyce did not just focus on the downside of an orchid’s sensitivity (more likely to be sick, higher stress levels), but on the upside as well, in their sensitivity allowing them to flourish and bloom when in supportive, loving environments. It’s a reminder to acknowledge the uniqueness of each child and person, and support them to unfold into themselves as best as we can, and that is a message that I support wholeheartedly.

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