How it Feels to Have a Normal Brain?
I recently asked my husband, “Is this how it feels to have a normal brain?” “No,” he responded very quickly. He was quick to follow that with, “There is no such thing as a normal brain.” Huh? Well, that is an intriguing thought. Is there any such thing as a normal brain? And what does that mean if there is such a thing?
That is a question that I ask myself a lot. What does it mean to be ‘normal’? Why is it so important to be ‘normal’? I have no idea. I have been living with some level of divergent brain function most of my life. I have felt that I was different my entire life, but abnormal? No, I don’t think that. Well, not anymore.
Without having ‘normal’ as a foundation, how do we (I) know that people (me) need to be on medication or how they work? Without normal, what do I compare myself to? Do I need to compare myself to anyone else or their brain? So many questions.
Our genetics determines our brain’s foundational blueprint. That foundation is how our brains know how to develop while we are still in the womb. Once we are born, our brains continue to rely on that genetic blueprint with the additional information coming from the environment. The answer to the old question of nature vs. nurture is that it is both.
Some research suggests that PTSD, depression, anxiety can be passed down from one generation to the next through that genetic blueprint.1 That could mean that a brain could have a structure that makes it more likely to develop PTSD. But that person may not develop PTSD if their environment doesn’t trigger those pathways.
I find that especially intriguing because of this idea of a ‘normal’ brain. If genetics plays a role in how our brain develops, which it does, then it stands to reason that our brains are foundationally different. The environments that we grow up in are different. Those experiences further individualize our brains. Those environmental experiences are different even for children who grow up in the same household.
By the time I was born, my foundational genetic blueprint was ripe for PTSD development. That and the abusive environment that I grew up in was the perfect combination of nature and nurture colliding t for me to develop PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
There is No Normal
It is safe to say that there is no ‘normal’ brain when we look at nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental experiences) regarding brain development. We all have core processes and functions, but then the similarities end as we move to more specific areas. Neuroscientists still need to understand the causes and the consequences of the differences that are inherent in our brains.2
It’s a bit mind-boggling that there is no such thing as a normal brain. I had hopes of finding that normal state that I should be working towards. I like knowing what things are supposed to look like or feel. Since I grew up in an atypical environment, I have no idea what I should be looking for or how I am supposed to feel on this journey of healing my mind. If there is no ‘normal,’ then where did that idea come from?
“Ultimately, we all share some core systems, but beyond those, our brains are as familiar yet as varied as the stars in the night sky. We can see the value of certain diagnostic labels while also acknowledging the fact that each of us has our unique profile of traits, with strengths and weaknesses.” 2
— Howard Timberlake
Compare to Survive
I think the idea of normal vs. abnormal is a way for people to separate themselves from others. It became a way to tell ourselves that we are okay because we aren’t like those other ‘abnormal’ people. It helps to make people feel better about themselves. Isn’t that the goal of comparing yourself to others? To make others feel less so that you can feel more or better than they are? The idea of normal came about for the same reason.
That need to compare ourselves to others may have originated from our need to survive. Back in the day, when you saw the slow runner get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, you knew that you needed to run faster, to be better than that person, to survive. When you strip away all of our higher functioning brain bits, we are living organisms looking to survive any way that we can. That ancient part of our brain, the amygdala, whose purpose is to keep us alive, is always there.
But as our society’s structure has become more complex, our thought processes and what our society values as strength and survival. It no longer is our ability to run faster than the other person, and it has become what money can buy. We still have our basic needs of survival, food, shelter, etc., but now it is more than having a roof over your head. It is now, how big is your roof? Is mine bigger than yours? If so, I win (survive) in the eyes of society.
Compare to Distance
So normalcy, like perfection, is a pipe dream. It does not exist. In our history, society determined that there is such a thing as ‘normal.’ Previously, we compared ourselves to each other to decide on how to survive. It evolved to determine who wins in the fight to be what society values. And then there are times that we compare to distance ourselves from others.
An extreme example of comparison to distance is serial killers. Those people do not have a normal brain. We need to think in those terms to know that we will never be like ‘those people.’ But in fact, their brains developed differently. It was such a different way that they no longer have empathy or sympathy, or respect for human life. Because if there isn’t a ‘normal’ brain, there isn’t any abnormal brain either. It is yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other.
A less extreme example is much closer to home. It is about me being an alcoholic. When I would tell people I don’t drink at the beginning of my sober journey, they would talk about how much they do or don’t drink. They were comparing themselves to me in hopes that they would determine that they don’t also have to stop drinking. They could hold alcoholism (and me) at arm’s length because they weren’t like me.
“I would move away from the judgment of it being normal or abnormal, and think about if there’s an impediment that might be treatable.”1
— Catherine Harmer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford
- Buschman, Heather PhD. (October 8, 2019). “Large Study Reveals PTSD Has Strong Genetic Component Like Other Psychiatric Disorders.” UC San Diego Health. https://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2019-10-08-study-reveals-ptsd-has-strong-genetic-component.aspx
- Timberlake, Howard. (October 10, 2019). “Why there is not such things as a ‘normal’ brain.” BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191008-why-the-normal-brain-is-just-a-myth