Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What the Hell is "Normal"? And Does It Preclude "Greatness"?

If you read John McManamy's blog, you're aware of Nassir Ghaemi's recent book  A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  You'll also be aware that McManamy thinks it's great, and raises a lot of important issues.  If you read this blog, you'll know that I think the book is highly problematic and not worth my time.

McManamy's belief is that this book starts an important conversation about the "gifts" conferred by mental illness -- gifts that "normal" people don't have.  But what exactly is "normal"?

McManamy makes a passing reference to Nazi Germany, and asks whether "normal" was part of their problem.  As it happens, I've studied this issue in some detail.  Normal ain't got nothing to do with it.  Trauma?  Now, trauma's got everything to do with it.  Is trauma "normal"?  I'd like to think not.  On the other hand, I know plenty of traumatized people, including myself, so maybe it's more "normal" than society would like to think.

But it's important to note here that "normal" may or may not mean "healthy".  When referring to a "normal" organism, the word means that the organism in question is healthy and without pathology.  This is the way the word is used in a discussion about "normal" versus "mentally ill".
However, "normal" can also mean something that is average or typical.  In the case of Nazi Germany, the average or typical person of the time had been reared by strict, authoritarian parents (it was the style at the time).  The "normal" person was experiencing deprivation due to the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, which was exacerbated by the ruinous treaty obligations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.  Depending on age, a "normal" German had traumatic memories of WWI.  He had either been at the front himself, or she had lost friends and family members at the front.  In other words, the "normal" person in prewar Germany was pretty traumatized.

Trauma, especially repeated trauma like extreme poverty or chronic child abuse, causes chronic stress.  Stress floods the brain with cortisol, causing all sorts of problems from impaired learning to ... well, mental illness.  Given this fact, is it really likely that a "normal" person in interwar Germany to have been "healthy"?  Or might interwar Germans have had more mental illness than other populations?

This brings us to my biggest concern about deriding "normal" in favor of mental illness, which can supposedly confer "greatness".  We know that some people with a genetic predisposition toward mental illness never become ill.  Sometimes, what tips a person into mental illness is sustained trauma.  Given what we know about the relationship between trauma, chronic stress, and mental illness, might we be implicitly normalizing or even condoning childhood trauma?

As an artist, I know a lot of creative people.  Not all of them are mentally ill, which clearly indicates that mental illness is not a requirement for creativity.  All of them, however, are probably very sensitive.  They share one characteristic with schizophrenics, and that is low latent inhibition.  Both groups have a tough time inhibiting their respons to stimuli in their environment.  Successful creative people learn how to manage this and channel it into their work.  Those who are overwhelmed by the stimuli become ill, and their creative work suffers.

I have an art student who reminds me a great deal of myself at his age.  When I met him he was 12 going on 40.  He's extremely creative, highly intelligent, sensitive, and empathetic.  He also has a loving, secure, emotionally intelligent family.  He knows how to soothe himself when a painting isn't up to his standards, instead of letting his perfectionism get the better of him and beating himself up about it.  For this reason, he's much less anxious than I was when I was his age.  He's much happier than I ever was.  His mood is so much more stable.

I believe that this student will be in a better position than I have been to enjoy his gifts.  Because he's "normal".  Because he's healthy.  Because he didn't grow up developing bad cognitive habits that lead to depression (it's not good enough; I'm not good enough; why do I even try; I'll never get into a good college; everyone will be disappointed in me; I'll never amount to anything).  If that's "normal", I'll take some, please!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting concept; that mental disorders have contributed to greatness. Although I believe that is true, to some degree, I also feel that without those challenges, greatness would/could have excelled to a much higher degree/purpose.

    If you will turn on your "Follow" capability, I would like to 'Follow' you. :)


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