Biological embedding is the process by which experience gets under the skin and alters human biology and development. Systematic differences in experience in different social environments lead to different biological and developmental outcomes. These in turn influence health, well-being, learning, or behavior over the life course. Research at HELP contributes to our understanding of the process of biological embedding: how early childhood environments work together with genetic variation and epigenetic regulation to generate gradients in health and human development across the life course.
Biological Sensitivity to Context
“Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.“ (Dobbs, 2009).
Dr. W. Thomas Boyce has written about the “orchid gene hypothesis”. This describes a process by which a child who has heightened stress sensitivity may have increased biological sensitivity to their experiences and environments. Children with such stress sensitivity may experience negative health effects if the experiences and the environments in which they spend time are highly stressful. At the same time, such sensitive children, if their experiences and environments are very positive, may have highly positive outcomes.
“We see that when kids with this kind of vulnerability are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best” (Dobbs, 2009).