the other side of normal

title: The Other Side of Normal: How Biology Is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior

author: Jordan Smoller

genre: Non-fiction, biology, psychiatry

suggested by: Stephanie R.

dates read: Feb 21st – Feb 24th

review:  4 of 5 stars

summary: Jordan Smoller, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, seeks to define what normal is in the context of psychiatry and the study of behaviors and biology in humans.  Highlighting various studies over the years, and his own experience in the field, he talks about mental illnesses and works to identify how we became ourselves, how nature and nurture work together to shape each of us, and how science is working to overcome some of the barriers individuals with disorders are facing.

personal thoughts: I had a difficult time with this one.  The subject matter was really interesting, but some of the explanations of the biology and inner workings of these outward disorders were a little hard to follow.  Honestly, I also had a really hard time reading about some of the experiments that used animals, especially one involving kittens.  I did really enjoy the second (and parts of the third) chapter, all about child development (what I studied in school) and reading more on some of the studies that I heard of and discussed in my own classes.  This idea of normal is difficult to define, because to each individual their experience can be very normal to them, but very abnormal to the next person.  It’s such an amorphous word, hard to pin down and really understand.  I like Smoller’s explanation that trying to define normal is like trying to find that exact line where day turns to night.

favorite quotes:
“…each of us has a unique and private life of the mind – a singular configuration of cognition, emotion, and social functioning that reflects an unprecedented combination of genes, experience, and environmental contingencies.” p. 2

“I have…seen medication and psychotherapies transform suffering and save live.  And the notion that defining these conditions as illnesses is merely an exercise in mythmaking trivializes the suffering of those who must bear them.” p. 29

“We can’t define a line between normal and disorder by simply declaring a set of extreme behaviors and symptoms.  Context matters…In other words, if we want to understand mental illness, we first need to understand how and why the mind functions the way it does.” p. 33

“…the people we become, our personalities, are the product of the small adjustments we make and the imperceptible turns we take as our innate temperaments encounter our own particular world.” p. 81

“…pretending is the playground where we learn to think about thinking.” p. 146

“Normal is not the ideal, the average, or even the state of being healthy.  It is more like a landscape of human possibility whose contours have been shaped by the design features of the mind and brain.” p. 324


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