On Dandelions and Orchids: Adaptation Beyond Nature Versus Nurture

There is a new way to describe or type people making the rounds. People, and especially children, can be describe as either being “dandelions” or “orchids” in response to their sensitivity to their environment.

Most people are considered to be dandelions in that they are not overly affected by their settings including whether they are facing adversity or are being praised. Orchids are more sensitive and, in keeping with the metaphor, tend to wilt if not in an environment to their liking.

Te new research points to a surprising finding which is that when the environment, or in the case of children, the parenting style, is properly adjusted, they flourish. In fact they can respond much more favorably than their dandelion compadres. The research behind these findings focuses on the expression of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the experience of reward and pleasure. Serotonin, another neurotransmitter is also involved.

Research goes further in suggesting that rigid lines between the concepts of nature and nurture need to be rethought. Michael Jawer puts it this way in his blog ‘Noetic Now”(http://noetic.org/noetic/issue-twenty-march/orchids-and-dandelions/) “The latest findings indicate that environmental stimuli can be as deterministic as genes were once believed to be and that the genome can be as malleable as only environments were believed to be.”

One example of this phenomenon can be seen in the route different people take to alcoholism. From experience, many people know someone who appeared to be practically an alcoholic from their first drink, such is their affinity. Likewise there are others who start out as social drinkers and only develop drinking problems after many years of ongoing imbibing. It takes repeated experiences with alcohol for some people to develop the higher tolerance that becomes problematic. The same may be true with the loss of control which is one of the most defining characteristics of alcoholism. Someone with strong tendencies to become an alcoholic by genetics won’t become one unless they drink a fair amount. Likewise someone, for whom it can be said that he or she didn’t really have an “alcoholic personality,” can become one if they drink enough.

I am interested in the dandelion/orchid typology because of the observation that people are impacted by trauma differently. Everybody knows of children who have suffered some of the worst degradations growing up and who become well functioning adults leading rich, fulfilling lives. Likewise there are people who who have been supplied with more than their share of advantages and who have grown up to be miserable wrecks.

I am interested in what happens on the level of what I call the “emotional slow camera.” In my hypothetical world there is a device, the slow motion emotional camera, which is capable of recording the impact of stresses and traumas encountered in the world and registering their impact on any individual’s psyche. Having the data about the way inwhich trauma iacts and becomes absorbed and possible integrated by an individual would provide clues how to reduce or eliminate the toxic effect of such impact. For example this mythical device might help a person understand how conflict with others might shape self image and create false negative beliefs.

According to this new research, orchid types might be stung more by negative feedback. They may also be more impervious to others  attempting to help them who are not properly attuned. If however they experience an environment they find nurturing they may quickly surpass their dandelion comrades.

David Dobbs suggests (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/) there may be advantages as well as the species to having both dandelion and orchid types. Dandelions are relatively health and more numerous which contributes stability, through a combination of resilience and being relatively thick skinned.

Orchids can act as  “highly hedged evolutionary bets,” in that some may be better suited to situations such as social strife, war, emigrating to a new country etc. So orchid’s highly sensitive nature give them greater chance to both suffer from psychological conditions like anxiety and depression, but to do better as well when in an environment that is less than optimal environment, but for which they are somehow adapted. In this way the combination of orchid and dandelion types means that both groups together do better than either would do alone.

In this way the dandelion and orchid hypothesis accounts for why depression and anxiety has not be selected out of the human genome. It’s mostly about the orchid in this regard.

There are of course limits to dandelion/orchid metaphor. I don’t see a person as a dandelion or an orchid any more than I see a women as being from Venus or a man as being from Mars. In fact most people have both dandelion and orchid traits.

Plus might we also suggest that our capacity to thrive or sensitivity to wilt differs in different situations for the same individual? For example the successful sales person who is unflappable toward rejection at work might require high maintenance from a partner in order to feel adequate at home.

Many couples therapists would say that being in a long term relationship provides the context to make one partner become an irritant to the inner orchid in the other partner.

As a blogger I have noticed my tendency to review music and the arts as well as sprinkle my views on psychological topics and substance abuse. So I will end with a question for you, dear reader, to ponder. What influence do you think the dandelion and orchid hypothesis has on the observation of family life made by Sly and the Family Stone in the song Family Affair. Note these lyrics:

“One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnjSDt_uzM0

For information about my psychotherapy practice go to:

http://www.johnbogardus.com

 

 

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