Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Secret Behind Resilience

What explains resilience?

Am I the only one who's ever wondered why some people are more resilient than others? For example, why is it that in a home where siblings are exposed to some kind of neglect, trauma or abuse, some are able to develop strong coping skills, going on to lead rewarding lives, while others don't?

I found my answer in a New York Times article my first semester of graduate school. It shook me. Prior to reading A Question of Resilience by Emily Bazelon, I'd never really considered the "nature" part of the "nature vs. nurture" argument for human development. Saying that someone was just "born" a certain way seemed too easy an explanation, like voodoo. As far as I was concerned, a person's environment and upbringing explained everything.

What I discovered in the New York Times article is that resilience is born out of both a person's genetics and environment.

"While children of average intelligence or above were more likely to exhibit resilience, the researchers noted that good relationships with adults can exert an effect that is as powerful, if not more, in mitigating the effects of adversity." Emily Bazelon, New York Times

Even though scientists have been able to identify genes that determine physical attributes, such as hair and eye color, genes that explain our psychology had remained a mystery. That is until a group of researchers identified 5-HTT, a gene that regulates the brain's serotonin levels. They discovered that the pair of genes in 5-HTT comes in two variations, two long alleles or two short alleles, with the short allele being the equivalent of getting the genetic "short end of the stick."

"Researchers are discovering that a particular variation of a gene can help promote resilience in the people who have it, acting as a buffer against the ruinous effects of adversity. In the absence of an adverse environment, however, the gene doesn't express itself in this way. It drops out of the psychological picture." Emily Bazelon, New York Times

We should all hope to have the protection of the long version of 5-HTT. Turns out that people carrying the long set are found to be more resilient, while those carrying at least one short allele are prone to developing depression and/or anxiety. The good news is that even if a person carries a short allele, it remains dormant until there's a trigger: stress or trauma.

The end of the New York Times article mentions a genetic test being made available through doctor's offices to test for the gene. What do you think? Would you want to know which set you carry?

Even though I'm fascinated by the topic and will be exploring it more as it relates to children in schools, I'm not sure I'd want to know.