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.

The lessons we have learned about biodiversity and cultural and racial diversity need to be applied to the human brain. We need a new field of neurodiversity that regards human brains as the biological entities they are, and appreciates the vast natural differences that exist from one brain to another regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other important mental functions.

Instead of pretending that hidden away in a vault somewhere is a perfectly “normal” brain, to which all other brains must be compared (e.g., the rose psychiatrist’s brain), we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.

Over the past 60 years, we’ve witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of new psychiatric illnesses, resulting in our disability-plagued culture. In 1952, the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association listed 100 categories of psychiatric illness. By 2000, this number had tripled.

We have become accustomed as a culture to the idea that significant segments of the population are afflicted with neurologically based disorders such as “learning disabilities,” “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and “Asperger syndrome”: conditions unheard of 60 years ago. Now, even newer disabilities are being considered for the next edition of the DSM, due out in 2012, including relational disorder, sexual behavior disorders and video game addiction.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has reported that more than one-quarter of all adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. It seems to me that we’re moving toward a day when virtually every single individual alive may be regarded as afflicted with a neurologically based mental disorder to one degree or another.

How did we get to this place? Certainly one factor has to do with the tremendous leap in knowledge we’ve made over the past several decades regarding the human brain. Hundreds, if not thousands, of studies come out every year giving us more and more information about how the human brain works. This is revolutionizing our understanding of human mental functioning and that is a good thing. But it is also responsible for ours becoming a disability culture.

The trouble is that medical researchers generally have a disease-based perspective regarding the brain, not a view that is focused on health and well-being. Funding for brain research goes to the squeaky wheel. Studies abound, for example, about what’s wrong with the left hemisphere of the brains of dyslexics. Little research, however, exists on an area in the right hemisphere that processes loose word associations and may be the source of poetic inspiration.

The concept of neurodiversity provides a more balanced perspective. Instead of regarding traditionally pathologized populations as disabled or disordered, the emphasis in neurodiversity is placed on differences. Dyslexics often have minds that visualize clearly in three dimensions. People with ADHD have a different, more diffused, attentional style. Autistic individuals relate better to objects than to people.

This is not, as some people might suspect, merely a new form of political correctness (e.g., “serial killers are differently assertive”). Instead, research from brain science, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, sociology and the humanities demonstrates that these differences are real and deserve serious consideration.

I recognize that they also involve tremendous hardship, suffering and pain. The importance of identifying mental illness, treating it appropriately and developing the means of preventing it in early childhood cannot be overstated.

However, one important ingredient in the alleviation of this suffering is an emphasis on the positive dimensions of people who have traditionally been stigmatized as less than normal.

(Click here for the full article found on Ode and the author’s 8 principles of neurodiversity.)

In presenting a case for the concept of neurodiversity, I am not seeking to romanticize mental illness. By focusing on the “hidden strengths” of mental disorders, I am not attempting to sidestep the damage these conditions do. I am not saying these really are not disorders, or that somehow calling them “differences” will make all the pain go away. It won’t.

But there is merit in focusing on the positives. The term neurodiversity is not a sentimental ploy to help people with mental illness and their caregivers “feel good” about these disorders. Rather, it is a powerful concept, backed by brain research, evolutionary psychology, anthropology and other fields, that can help revolutionize the way we look at mental illness.

In mounting a huge campaign to reveal the strengths of people with mental disorders, some of the prejudice that exists against mental illness might be diffused. It also seems to me therapeutically useful for people with mental disorders (and their caregivers) to focus on the positives as much as, or more than, the negatives. Seeing our own inner strengths builds our self-confidence, provides us with courage to pursue our dreams and promotes the development of specific skills that can provide deep satisfaction in life. This creates a positive feedback loop that helps counteract the vicious circle that many people with mental disorders find themselves in as a result of their disabilities.

My hope is that, like minorities who have achieved liberation around the world, people with neurodiverse brains will be helped to achieve dignity, integrity and wholeness in their lives.


Emma S.
Emma S6 years ago

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!

Agnes O.
Agnes O7 years ago

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.

Jill B.
Jill B7 years ago

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.

Kristy Mitchell
Kristy M7 years ago

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

Lim Y.
Lim Y7 years ago


carole a.
.7 years ago

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.

Monique D.
Mon D7 years ago


Jennifer Blan
Jennifer M7 years ago

Good article

Tiffany Austin

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

Electrah DM
Electrah DM7 years ago

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?