The failed search for the normal brain

Maria Isabel Garcia
We thrive as humans because we are diverse. None of us is normal.

No one memorable is normal. When you think of the most amazing persons in your life, they, in ways that are important to you, stand out. They are not normal. But are there really people who are “normal” in every way, across their entire lives? When we really think about it, one wonders if “normal” really exists as a definite, immovable state – as knowable as location is, by its geographic coordinates. So, does “normal” really exist? 

In statistics, “normal” is represented by all the data that coalesce in that large bump in the bell curve. But it is not a very useful way to look at it when we want to know what “normal” behavior looks like. This is what researchers concluded last year when they studied large data on brain function and behavior

The research concluded that there is no one universal state for what is normal brain function. They concluded that variability is really what is normal and that “normal” cannot be described outside the context of one’s life’s circumstances and other biological factors. 

This just gives a neuroscientific basis for what we all must know based on our own lives as well as what we observe of ourselves and other people. What you once considered normal for you may not necessarily be normal for someone else. And what is considered normal now may have been outrageous a few years ago. 

The researchers reasoned that if you observe natural history – including non-human species – variety is what’s common. In other words, a species would fail if it remained “normal” because everything else changes and the key to survival is to be creative in responding to these changes. In other words, if you remain normal in the sense that you are not responding to what is happening, then you simply get eliminated in the game of life. This is why all species who are still around have survived the changes across time – from the miniature to the catastrophic changes. Those who stayed “normal” in the face of a changing world vanished. 

Another reason is that the human brain also evolved in that it has literally expanded and grown so many alternate pathways from “input” to “output” – no one direct path. This is explained so well by neuroscientist David Eagleman in his documentary The Creative Brain.  A very good example he gave was that the “simple” brain will hunt food, see food, and then eat food. The creative brain – which the human brain evolved to be – will hunt food, experiment on the best parts to be eaten, test ways to prepare or cook it, present it as a dish, and then eat it with the best tools or not. If you think about it, given a behavior such as eating, and the many ways there are in the journey from discovering food to eating it, it does not make to have only one way as “normal.” How each of us will approach food, physically, culturally, and emotionally will always be different.  

In terms of “normal” behavior in a common human activity, let us take traveling for example. One of the foremost reasons I love BBC is the way they drive the point that diversity drives life. Look at the presenters they have in their current travel shows. They have Ade Adepitan who is in a wheelchair. His travel shows are far more interesting than most other travel shows because even the most famous tourist spots take on a far more interesting meaning. And Tony Giles, BBC’s blind travel presenter who has visited 120 countries. Because of his insight, viewers have another way of appreciating any journey – from a “soundpoint” or “touchpoint,” instead of a “viewpoint.” I think the notion of “one normal state” deprives us of the chance to access what color is to the mind of the blind, what a tone is to the deaf’s profound silence, or how the bounce of words play in the vocal cavity of someone who is mute. 

Many years ago, I read and wrote about Michelle Mack who had a stroke while she was still a baby in the womb so that her left brain never developed. She had a cavity where her left hemisphere should be. She had trouble with things that concerned visual-spatial abilities, but she could talk – a feat that is largely associated with the left brain. Yet, Michelle is whole. She does the computerized updating of their church records. She can also tell you which day it is from any date you tell her. It was Michelle who made me reconsider how I view “halves” (or portions) and what they have to do with the meaning of “wholes” when we reconcile our finite biology with our own humanity. Caged in a single definition of “normal,” we miserably fail to discover the liberating and uplifting insight that two halves are not the only ones that make a whole. 

But this does not mean that there is no such thing as mental disorder or illness. What the researchers in the study are saying is that there is no one brain state that is “normal” from which we can diagnose an illness or disorder, based on how much deviation there is from that one brain state. They are saying that the evaluation of an illness has to be contextual – the circumstances the person is in, her age, her social network, her neurobiological characteristics, as well as the physiological stories occurring inside her. In other words, there is no single formula to detect mental illness as there is no single universal brain function reference for what is “normal.”

We thrive as humans because we are diverse. None of us is normal. Quashing diversity for the sake of a one fake template for “normal” prevents us from seeing humanity as a whole. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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