Bozo Sapiens

Exploring how our cognitive, logical, and romantic failures are a fair price for our extraordinary success as a species.

Being Mr. Shattuck

What's your normality?

In the old joke, after the clergyman had been introduced to his Boston congregation at an afternoon tea party, his hostess asked him what he thought. "Well, there was one thing I found slightly strange: that elderly gentleman in the torn straw hat holding his umbrella open over his head, who seems only interested in butterflies." The hostess frowned: "oh, that's not strange - that's Mr. Shattuck."

Despite centuries of psychological inquiry, the question of what's strange and what's normal remains open. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) specifies over 500 separate conditions that professionals should consider and treat as diseases - but you don't have to be a hypochondriac to see yourself in many of its listings. We all have degrees of anxiety, occasional problems in communication, irrational dependencies or minor delusions. The DSM recognizes this: nearly half its symptoms only constitute a disorder if they produce "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" - that is, they are only problems if they are a problem.

There's the rub: if "social impairment" is one way of determining whether our behavior represents a disease or an eccentricity, we put ourselves at the mercy of other people. Their opinions, their norms, decide whether we are strange or Mr. Shattuck.

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The poet William Blake would receive visitors naked in his garden, in an apparently sincere imitation of the innocence of Eden - but today, we might classify this as exhibitionism (DSM code 302.4). Winston Churchill was pursued throughout life by what he called "the black dog," a crippling depression (code 296.32) - and his intake of brandy (code 303.90) would not now be acceptable in a political leader. Dr. Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary, had an impressive array of tics, dreads, rituals, and supersitions, sufficient to suggest an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Recent scholars have claimed that both Newton and Einstein were well out along the autistic spectrum.

Nobody at the time would say these people were completely normal; they were "difficult," or "wilful" or - in the more robust language of the past - "slightly mad." All these, though, were qualities accepted within the broad definition of "personality." They did not impair social function, so they were not disorders. People took oddity in their stride: they accommodated it, much as we now accommodate a certain amount of bad behavior in rock stars or expect a degree of autism from mathematicians and chess-players.

"Normal," after all, is a simply a statistical notion; but the bigger the population, the more tightly defined the center of the bell curve becomes. In a village, you can have plenty of outliers, as well as more dimensions in which to excel. Children know this, however unconsciously, and show it even in their cruelty: the unusal child in a one-room kindergarten is accepted as "one of us;" but there's little hope for the "weirdo" in a big city elementary school. Nowadays our playground is global, or at least national; omnipresent media let us gauge normality across a whole society, rewarding with popularity and success those who fit those criteria best without too many awkward extras. Thus, we have our share of prominent nonentities: people famous for being famous, rich because they are rich. We try to tailor ourselves into the image of acceptable achievement, dressing for success, imitating the habits of "effective people." We often choose our candidates based, not on their exceptional qualities, but on their appearance of normality - another reason Churchill would have a hard time in contemporary politics.

In its most extreme form, this emphasis on the norm can make us treat as diseases things that are not. A recent article by David Dobbs reviews the severe doubts that have accumulated around the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in returning war veterans. It describes how many of the expected, normal emotional reactions to the extreme pressures of combat and difficulties of readjustment to civilian life have been lumped together under the label of PTSD, meaning that thousands of anxious or depressed veterans are recieving entirely the wrong treatment - with, unsurprisingly, little improvement in their conditions but great cost to the Veterans Administration health-care system. Being issued the wrong code in the DSM can be a serious matter.

Semel insanivimus omnes, as the poet Mantuanus said: we have all been insane at some time. And that's a good thing.  If we were all perfectly normal, our lives would settle into their lowest energy state; we would not feel that irrational impulse to act, to dare, to seek, to create. We humans as a species depend on our unusual risk-takers or we would have settled into predictability, easy marks for predators and disasters. Eccentricity gives us each the chance to live at ease in our characters, not just fulfil the expectations of others. And no church tea would be complete without Mr. Shattuck.

 

Michael Kaplan writes about chance, fate, probability and error. He is the author of Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.

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