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The Orchid Hypothesis has developed out of genetic research, initially focussing on a risk of depression. At least a dozen genetic variations were investigated, mostly affecting the balance of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. It was found that, far from being a problem, this genetic profile could produce some extraordinary benefits. These individuals often stand out from the general population as being happier and more able. But this only happens if they suffer no significant environmental trauma, or successfully overcome it.
  • The Orchid Hypothesis

    The Orchid Hypothesis

    The Orchid Hypothesis has developed out of genetic research, initially focussing on a risk of depression. At least a dozen genetic variations were investigated, mostly affecting the balance of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. It was found that, far from being a problem, this genetic profile could produce some extraordinary benefits. These individuals often stand out from the general population as being happier and more able. But this only happens if they suffer no significant environmental trauma, or successfully overcome it.

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The idea is that some genes are rather like exotic seeds – planted in just the right, supportive environment they help an individual flourish and stand out from the general background, but in the wrong environment they may never manage to flower at all. This was originally termed the orchid-dandelion hypothesis by two Swedish researchers, Thomas Boyce and Bruce Ellis. In Sweden, children who seem to thrive almost anywhere are known as ‘dandelion children’, so those sensitive children who were less tolerant of stress were termed ‘orchids’.
These gene variants now apply to well over twenty percent of the world’s population, but none of the mutations existed 80,000 years ago. It is the result of a process of natural selection which suggests that it has the potential to convey exceptional benefits, both to the individual and society as a whole.
When studying these gene variants researchers found social sensitivity, increased attentiveness, a taste for novelty and exploration and a wide range of cognitive functions including improved decision making and cognitive flexibility. These individuals would be more sensitive to environmental changes and threats of many kinds and often the first to be aware of a need to respond.
In contrast, they also found that harsher environments could create anxiety disorders, depression, addictive behaviours, attention deficit, organisational issues, aggression or even violence. The heightened emotional state of these children meant that they were much more likely to respond to stress factors in their environment than their steadier, less sensitive, ‘dandelion’ peers. There were gender differences, however. Most boys with this profile showed a clear negative response, but overt responses were much less common in girls.
Researchers believe that the increased plasticity and responsiveness these individuals possess can make them uniquely gifted. Even those with problems with attention, aggression or risk taking behaviours could prove to be invaluable in challenging environments or conflict situations. These individuals have the potential to enrich, challenge, reform and develop our society and it is very important to understand their needs and develop their gifts.