What does it really mean to be normal?

abnormal behavior df b cf
Image credit: Odyssy

We use the term “normal” so casually and so often that it seems utterly…normal. But in a compelling Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper published earlier this year, Yale University neuroscientists Avram Holmes and Lauren Patrick argue we must move beyond the traditional concept of “normal” because it doesn’t exist—at least, not as a single, fixed entity. Instead, they contend, it represents a wide spectrum of healthy variability.

Consider depression. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, depression is defined by a constellation of symptoms: low mood, diminished interest in or ability to feel pleasure, changes in weight or appetite, sleeping too little or too much, feeling sluggish or hyperactive, etcetera.

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The systematic lumping of non-normal behaviors into a discrete diagnosis gives the impression mental illness is a cognitive stepping out of bounds—that the mind has broken and requires fixing. This concept of a fixed “normal,” Holmes and Patrick argue, is an erroneous and unrealistic (could one say “unhealthy”?) misconception that doesn’t reflect the healthy variation produced by evolution.

Evolution, they maintain, doesn’t converge on a stable “healthy”—or even a narrow range of healthy values within a given trait.

The take-home: behaviors are not simply healthy or unhealthy but rather healthy or unhealthy within a specific environment. Behavioral variability allows a species to flexibly meet ever-changing conditions.

Read full, original post: Who Are You Calling Normal?

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