Cool Research at UBC: Is Success Written in Your Genes?

Of all the poems she wrote, few evoke Sylvia Plath’s own particular torturous reality as plainly as “The Disquieting Muses”. By the time it was written, in 1957, Plath had already survived a descent into serious depression and one failed suicide attempt. Six years later she would try again and succeed.

The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico, which later inspired Sylvia Plath’s poem by the same name.

Creativity and mental illness (or genius and madness, if you prefer) is not such an unusual pairing. (If you don’t believe me, sign up for a CENS 202–Central, Eastern, and Northern European literature–class next term. Suicidal writers galore.) But what is it that causes someone like Sylvia Plath to struggle where her peers go through the motions of life just fine? That question is felt painfully in every line of Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses”:

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Was it indeed something that Plath’s mother did or did not do?

Yes and no may be the answer according to research by a group of developmental psychologists and neuroscientists, including UBC’s very own Dr. Thomas Boyce, in the Faculty of Medicine.

That genes and environment work together to determine our personalities has long been accepted. Unraveling the interplay between the two is more difficult to accomplish. In recent years, different versions of genes involved in the usage of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters involved in mood, have been linked to an increased risk for depression and mental illness.

Understandably, these so-called “risk alleles” carried a negative connotation. But that could begin to change.

Dr. Boyce and his colleagues propose an alternate and novel theory. Their studies suggest that these alleles are a bit like the mutations carried by the characters in X-Men. Depending on the environment in which the children with these alleles are raised, the result could be a Magneto or an Xavier: Metal-wielding and angry with violent tendencies, or leader and creative mastermind.

In other words, the same qualities afforded by these alleles that carry the potential for depression or violence, also give the children that posses them the potential to excel beyond their wild-type peers if nurtured in the proper environment. Qualities such as increased sensitivity. Boyce and his colleagues call this group “orchid children”. The majority of people, in contrast, are “dandelion children”–hearty and able to thrive almost anywhere, but within the normal range of human abilities.

Evolutionarily speaking, this theory is appealing. If “risk alleles” conferred no advantage to our species, why would they have persisted in the population? In this model, the potential of certain individuals for volatile behaviour–a risk–is tempered by their equal potential for enormous creativity and productivity –a benefit to society.

David Dobbs wrote a fantastic article on this research in the December issue of The Atlantic (“The Science of Success”). (A rather less-fantastic article also appeared in the Globe and Mail recently).

The key in the article by Dobbs, I think, is that he touches on the personal implications of this sort of research for our lives in the future. My genetics professors continuously stress that personalized medicine is the future of health care.

Meaning what exactly?

Meaning that some day , perhaps sooner than we think, you will be able to extract the secrets of your individual genetic code, lay them out like the entrails of a sacrificial bird and read your lifeline in the base pairs nature has dealt you.

How does one deal with that knowledge?

When I was a child, I used to sit with my best friend in her basement asking an old Ouiji board questions about our future selves. When will I get married? How many children will I have? When will I die?

It’s one thing to ask the questions. It’s another to know the answers. In his article, Dobbs discusses  his own struggles with depression and his decision to get genetic testing after researching this topic. At the end, when he opens his results to find that he is homozygous recessive for the “risk allele”, he writes:

As I sat absorbing this information, the chill came to seem less the coldness of fear than a shiver of abrupt and inverted self-knowledge—of suddenly knowing with certainty something I had long suspected, and finding that it meant something other than I thought it would. The orchid hypothesis suggested that this particular allele, the rarest and riskiest of the serotonin-transporter gene’s three variants, made me not just more vulnerable but more plastic. And that new way of thinking changed things. I felt no sense that I carried a handicap that would render my efforts futile should I again face deep trouble. In fact, I felt a heightened sense of agency. Anything and everything I did to improve my own environment and experience—every intervention I ran on myself, as it were—would have a magnified effect. In that light, my short/short allele now seems to me less like a trapdoor through which I might fall than like a springboard—slippery and somewhat fragile, perhaps, but a springboard all the same.

Would Sylvia Plath have wanted to know what beastly muses would haunt her in her later years? Maybe and maybe not.

The beauty of the orchid hypothesis is that it provides new insight into the role that environment plays in shaping who we are and who we become. To a certain degree, it is empowering.

When I was mulling over this post, I thought of the biographies of two American presidents, one of which I watched on PBS, the other, which I came across in another issue of The Atlantic.

The first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After years of wealth, privilege, and a comfortable political career, Roosevelt contracted polio at a summer camp and woke up one morning paralyzed from the waist down. The interesting thing is that according to those who knew him well, it was the humility and personal understanding of suffering and sacrifice, as well as the perseverance he gained by losing his legs that made FDR a great president.

The second was Abraham Lincoln. Modern psychologists now agree that he suffered from clinical depression. Some  argue that the personality traits that led Lincoln into periods of depression were also those that allowed him to lead the country through a time of civil war and calamity.

Perhaps the point is that our genes are not the only purveyors of our fate, and what we are quick to label as illness or disease can give us the character required to excel in ways we never would have thought possible.

In any case, the personal and ethical implications of personalized medicine and genetic testing are worth considering.

(Read the original research paper abstract here. You have to hunt down the original in print or pay for online access, unfortunately)

Addendum 02/03/10: Another theory on the evolutionary role of depression just appeared in the NY Times.

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.