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The Orchid Child

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 28 December 2021

As with many first-time parents, I have on more than one occasion wondered whether my toddler's intense reaction to something seemingly inconsequential boded poorly for his future happiness.

Would my beautiful and amazing boy (unable to focus on anything else until the bathroom door left slightly ajar was closed or the torn piece of paper on the floor discarded) ever be able to cope with the future setbacks, challenges, and out-of-place objects the universe would inevitably throw his way?

For the most part, or so I've been told, these fears are unfounded. As any experienced parent will tell you, these quirky behaviors are merely part and parcel of healthy toddler development. And yet, while this is no doubt true, it seems equally clear that some kids simply are more sensitive to their environments than others. 

As my dear friend described it, while other babies appeared to nurse happily just about anywhere, she couldn't even press "return" on the computer keyboard for fear her infant son would unlatch to see what she was doing. During that first year, she recalls: "Half my life was spent hiding in quiet rooms." Despite trying to embrace public feeding, "it never worked," she said: Even visits to friends turned into "sitting alone in their spare room or bathroom."

Recently, this issue of differential sensitivity has become a hotbed of discussion and debate within the field of genetic research. Scientists are now beginning to show what any parent of more than one child has known all along: Different children have more- or less-sensitive temperaments. More than this, though, the latest research suggests that this hypersensitivity is, in fact, an adaptive response, one that has been fundamental to our evolutionary success as a species.

The public awareness of what may well have remained an academic debate owes a good deal to an article written by David Dobbs back in December 2009. The article in question, "The Science of Success" published in The Atlantic magazine, cogently summarized the research to date on what most broadly might be understood as the interactions between environment, genetic expression, early childhood experience, and behavioral outcomes. Most specifically, the article highlighted a fascinating new turn in the science of genetics, one referred to by Dobbs as the Orchid Hypothesis.

The Orchid Hypothesis offers a dramatically new way of looking at individual genetic predisposition, as well as important components of human evolutionary history. This new model posits that the very genes that have been found to predispose individuals to a variety of disorders (including for instance depression, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD) are precisely the same genes that in other circumstances, can give rise to our highest achievements.

In essence, the Orchid Hypothesis offers the distinct possibility that key genetic variants viewed previously as rendering their carriers more vulnerable to difficulties down the road might now, as Dobb wrote, instead by seen as "highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards."

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This is the first of a 2-part series by Sheena Sommers, MA, of Canada while she worked toward a PhD in History with a special interest in childbirth, maternity care, and childrearing trends. In Part 2, we dive into the research supporting the Orchid Hypothesis.

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The orchid child defined