Mind & Body

You're Not Normal Because Nobody Is, According to Yale Research

Ever felt like a total weirdo? Turns out, there's nothing weird about that at all. Feeling different is normal because there is no normal. In a 2018 study, Yale researchers confirmed what we've known to be true all along: Humans are just a bunch of freaks. And, fortunately, that's exactly the way it should be.

Change Is the Only Constant

Chances are you've Googled things like: When is the normal age to get married? What's a normal bedtime? Is it normal to talk to your dog? Is it normal to sleep with a teddy bear? According to a study published in February 2018, all of our Googling is for naught. The study, conducted by Yale researchers Avram J. Holmes and Lauren M. Patrick and published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, notes that there is no normalcy — not for people, and not for people's brains. "Optimality in clinical neuroscience" is a myth, they say, and change, range, and variety is much more common — normal? — for life, and necessary for the evolutionary progress of a species.

But this isn't just about taking solace in your weirdness. Their research has implications for psychiatry and how mental illness should be perceived and treated. The team concluded, "[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."

That's Where I Draw the Line

So you may have some questions at this point. If there's no such thing as normal, then there shouldn't be anything weird about eating 23 hot dogs first thing in the morning, right? Well, you're not asking the right question. There is no right or wrong way to be a human, and normal is a relative term that depends on time, place, and circumstance. Downing two dozen hot dogs alone at your kitchen table at 6 a.m.? Whether or not it's "normal," it's probably not a healthy behavior, mentally or otherwise. Doing the same at a hotdog eating competition at the state fair? That's more logical (though still not physically healthy). This circumstantial consideration should be applied to psychiatry, argues Holmes. In our colorful example, eating a ton of hotdogs in a single sitting shouldn't automatically place someone into the bucket of "mental illness." Other individual factors need to be taken into account.

Holmes explained this approach to Quartz: "The point we argue is that there is no universal, unconditionally optimal pattern of brain structure or function. So the border separating health from disease cannot be cleanly drawn through a single behavior or aspect of brain function. In isolation, any given behavioral, psychological, or neurobiological trait is typically neither good nor bad. Rather, the context a person is in, their age, social network, and environment, can have a huge influence on the costs and benefits of particular traits."

Holmes says that if you are struggling, seek psychiatric help. But if you're perfectly happy, healthy, and productive in your weirdness, who's to say your "abnormality" is wrong?

Intrigued? Check out "No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America" by New York Times bestselling author Ron Powers for more on this topic. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

No One is "Normal"

Written by Joanie Faletto April 13, 2018

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