605: Normality

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
605: Normality

When someone describes themselves as “normal”, what do you imagine?

Full episode script

Normal is one of those things that gets brought up a lot, because it, frankly, it’s something that many people want to be and everyone feels like they can’t achieve. In short, the only “normal” thing is not feeling “normal” at all.


In February of 2018, a study was published that argued the whole idea of normal may be a bit mixed up, at least when it comes to neuroscience. Quoting directly from the Quartz article about the study:


“The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience”, by Avram Holmes and Lauren Patrick of the Yale University psychology department, uses evolution to show that uniformity in our brains is totally abnormal. What’s much more common in life, during its 3.5 billion years of evolving existence on Earth, is range and change, variety in and among creatures and habitats.


Evolution is about crafty adaptability, changing with conditions and times. Because all things, from trees to families, countries, and continents,  are in a state of flux, the only constant state is a constantly transforming one. This means that any one behavior or condition may seem good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, depending on the context.


That applies to psychiatric conditions, too. Yale researchers analyzed the range of beaks in a single bird species, among many other evolutionary variations—including a seemingly infinite number of human behaviors which may be appropriate and indeed ideal at any given moment. They conclude:


[T]here is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors […] We propose that, instead of examining behaviors in isolation, psychiatric illnesses can be best understood through the study of domains of functioning and associated [complex] patterns of variation across distributed brain systems.


We’ve talked about normal before, in episodes 143 and 493. This is just one more facet of the incredibly complex question of this concept of “normal”.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.