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What is a “Normal” Brain?

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What is a “Normal” Brain?

By Thomas Armstrong, Ode Magazine

Imagine for a moment that our society has been transformed into a culture of flowers. Now let’s say for the sake of argument that the psychiatrists are the roses. Visualize a gigantic sunflower coming into the rose psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist pulls out his diagnostic tools and in a matter of a half an hour or so has come up with a diagnosis: “You suffer from hugism. It’s a treatable condition if caught early enough, but alas, there’s not too much we can do for you at this point in your development. We do, however, have some strategies that can help you learn to cope with your disorder.” The sunflower receives the suggestions and leaves the doctor’s consulting room with its brilliant yellow and brown head hanging low on its stem.

Next on the doctor’s schedule is a tiny bluet. The rose psychiatrist gives the bluet a few diagnostic tests and a full physical examination. Then it renders its judgment: “Sorry, bluet, but you have GD, or growing disability. We think it’s genetic. However, you needn’t worry. With appropriate treatment, you can learn to live a productive and successful life in a plot of well-drained sandy loam somewhere.”

These scenarios sound silly, but they serve as a metaphor for how our culture treats neurological differences in human beings these days. Instead of celebrating the natural diversity inherent in human brains, too often we medicalize and pathologize those differences by saying, “Johnny has autism. Susie has a learning disability. Pete suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Imagine if we did this with cultural distinctions (“People from Holland suffer from altitude deprivation syndrome”) or racial differences (“Eduardo has a pigmentation disorder because his skin isn’t white”). We’d be regarded as racists and nationalists. Yet, with respect to the human brain, this sort of thinking goes on all the time under the aegis of “objective” science.

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.


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12:32PM PST on Dec 8, 2011

I write plays, and one of the best descriptions of editing I've ever heard was, 'trying to let the play be more like itself.' And I think this is what therapy should probably do. I mean our best selves, of course!

6:23AM PDT on Sep 22, 2010

Blake W. sorry but this sunflower has all petals, they are just a different color. Where is the law that says everyone has to be good at everything?

The so-called NTs are deficient in a lot of things from an autistic view. Yet we normally do not label them defective.

2:09PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

Having grown up with a.d.d. I was constantly being put down by my teachers for not paying attention, try as I would. They knew that my I.Q was very healthy but my grades were not and they were sure that I was lazy. I developed a terrible lack of self confidence because of this. It was not until I reached my mid forties that, after reading about a.d.d., I found there was a reason for my behaviour. For me it was good that there was a label. It gave me closure and I was able to increase in my self confidence. Now I look back and realize the good things that came from this. I have more compassion for people who do do not have the "perfect brain" or who are perfect in other ways. I also have a spin off ability to take large amounts of information and 'bottom line' it much more quickly than most. So looking at the positive is really great. It seems we are all unique with unique gifts for society after all. Thanks for the aritcle.

5:26AM PDT on Aug 23, 2010

But it is important to treat conditions like bi-polar and Tourette's, both of which I have.

10:25PM PDT on Aug 21, 2010


3:15PM PDT on Aug 20, 2010

Excellent article. I am a retired Licensed MSW who wishes that clinicians would be allowed by insurance to actually LOOK at the brain of the person they are treating. I mainly worked for poor clients, prostituted women. trauma survivors, recovering drug abusers and 99 percent of my clients were smarter than my peers. An unhealthy brain looks like swiss cheese. People in certain professions are breathing in toxic chemicals which if we could SEE the brain would be a positive in diagnosing. Mental health is not a science. Insurance caused us to take on the medical model, but what reputable dr. would treat or diagnose solely through the DSM? It costs 1,000 USD to get a color spect of the brain. This is not science. And the DSM is invalid as it is not cross-cultural.

12:06PM PDT on Aug 19, 2010


1:24PM PDT on Aug 17, 2010

Good article

11:47AM PDT on Aug 17, 2010

Thank you for sharing this perspective! I find it very helpful and uplifting!

7:31AM PDT on Aug 17, 2010

Interesting perspective- thank you. How do sunflowers find sunflower doctors? Or more importantly, how do sunflowers find healthy sunflower doctors? Regardless of pedigrees and certificates, can they heal themselves?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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people are talking

Might I suggest reading "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert? Awesome book about living a creative life …


Am on the road, so will have to bookmark this for later. Thanks!

Thank you Jake.


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