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the most important article i’ve read all year

December 9, 2009

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.

Thanks to Ingrid Steblea, who posted the link to this article from The Atlantic on her Facebook page, and Dale Favier who told me about it.

We’ve all talked before about the stereotypes of the creative mind — its perks and its liabilities. I don’t mind telling you I’ve beaten down my doctor’s door several times asking for a prescription that would calm down my mind only to despise the feeling of the calmed-down mind and abandon the medication. My personal history, my medical history and my creative history are filled with the spoils and the casualties of this sort of pendulum-thinking.

I would like to think as I get older (more mature?), I have a more unified and stable understanding of my path: how I got here and where else I can go. My extreme sensitivity has been the source of difficulty. It’s been destructive more than I’d like to admit. It’s also crystal clear to me that it’s going to be what guides me to creative success, to my own brand of parenting, to forgiveness (and, I dare hope, appreciation) of myself.

The article isn’t a discussion of the creative mind specifically. It’s a much broader discussion of the sensitive mind, with the science of genetics and brain chemistry backing it up. There are many aspects of the article to explore — and many applications of the information it provides. Here are the not-so-big leaps I made while reading it (not surprisingly, they are based in my own experience):

  • Once and for all, let’s get over this notion that we have to treat every child the same in order to be fair.
  • If a child is acting out or exhibiting other signs of emotional distress, let’s not ascribe to that child the following: she is just being difficult or she is just being dramatic. (There may be something more at play, like genetics or environment — trauma — or, quite likely, the combination.)
  • When we recognize sensitivities in children, let’s help them find the positive attributes of that without demonizing the part of them that struggles. This, of course, requires an effort on our part. It’s inconvenient. It’s time-consuming. But it’s also life-altering for the child. The absence of such careful attention can kill a person. Literally and figuratively. Not everyone makes it. That’s the bottom line.
  • We joke, now, in a pop-psychology way, about blaming the mother for everything. It would be a shame if that caused us to look away from the fundamental importance of a lifelong bond between mother and child. The article (and the video embedded within it) discuss its significance physiologically. That’s right — physiologically — the psycho-analysis is several steps removed.

I’m in my thirties — deep, deep into my thirties (sigh) — and I’m finally figuring out what I’ve been up to all these years, what I’ve been looking for. (And maybe it’s what we’re all looking for.) I’ve been trying to build an environment in which I can thrive. Here’s a quote from the article:

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.

Although I don’t like the language (“orchid” could be interpreted as “special” and “unique,” preferable to “dandelion” as “ordinary” and “plentiful”), I appreciate the part of the metaphor the researchers use to differentiate between their two definitive groups. I have spent (wasted?) a lot of time willing myself to be a dandelion child. I recount most failures in my life as a failure of my own will, but according to the article, it may not be a matter of will. It may be genetics. Take away the possibility of becoming something you’re not and you’re left with being who you are — and figuring out how to make that work.

When we’re kids, there are lots of things we don’t choose. Hell, when we’re adults there are lots of things we don’t choose, but I think fewer things are thrust upon us. But these hobbies I obsess about (poetry, Zumba, running, visual art, even eating, drinking, organizing) and these people I attach to and hang onto for dear life (sorry if you’re one of them and I’m squeezing too hard) — these form the climate and the landscape and the air and the water of that place in which I can thrive.

It’s the reason we have to be gentler to ourselves and each other. As complex as it all can seem, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s pretty basic to our survival: we need a helpful environment and it’s devastating — life-threatening — when that doesn’t exist. We all ought to pay it a little closer attention.

[Go read the article. It’s fascinating. It’s brilliant. There’s no way to do it justice in my pedestrian application of it to my own life. It represents transformative thinking. What are you still doing here? Go! Read it!]

  1. December 9, 2009 11:25 am

    Oh, I’m so glad this article spoke to you, too, Carolee. (I actually thought of you, and a few other very like-natured friends, when I posted it.) It made so much sense and resonated so deeply with everything I’ve been thinking about and working toward over the years. We should form an orchid support group. 😉

  2. December 9, 2009 11:29 am

    i’m pleased you thought of me. 🙂

    i have printed it out for future references of all sorts.

    most fun would be handing copies randomly to rude cashiers or mean drivers (um, excuse me sir/ma’am, but this will help explain why your careless handling of my environment will set me back a few weeks).

    most satisfying would be handing copies to more significant influences in my life (read this with great attention to detail. the rest of your life with me is a test of your understanding of the article.)

    • December 9, 2009 4:26 pm

      I used to think everybody suffered the way I did in grade school, and I could not understand why people let it go on. Now I’m thinking that maybe it’s fine for 75% percent of the kids. The harsh lighting, the loud noise, the crowding, the boring classes, the occasional bullying and injustice — dandelion kids take it in stride. But it’s harrowing for us poor trembly stick-to-Mom rhesus monkeys 🙂

  3. December 10, 2009 7:47 am

    I LOVED it. It really resonates for me and for my eldest boy. We are both orchids (like you, I’m not so keen on the word…..btw, have you read the highly sensitive person books? They are wonderful and the hypothesis is similar)……and navigating life can be damn hard. You are so right about tailoring environments to suit. I do just that. And more and more the older I get.


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