In Search of the “Normal” Brain
The Normal Brain
Imagine something complex and individual—maybe a micro-ecology between mountains and the sea. It has its own weather patterns—may rain more in that area than 5 miles away. Temperatures may be very different. Birds and insects that live there may not do well on the other side of the mountain. It is a complex, interlocking homeostasis very much like a human brain.
What would be the benefit of comparing dozens of different measures of that eco-system with fifty others? Compare the average maximum temperature on January 3, rainfall on April 12, ratio of deciduous to evergreen trees. Would that really tell you whether your little eco-system is “normal”? It would be a silly exercise, because the concept of “normal” isn’t particularly useful when looking at highly individualized systems which have developed in response to their environments—like the human brain.
The Database Brain
Researchers like E. Roy John and Robert Thatcher began producing EEG databases in the late 1980’s. Thatcher’s, for years known as the head-injury database, has now become a source of “norms”. Researchers use these files as “population” statistics to compare against sub-groups of the population (e.g. anxious people, inattentive people, etc.) to seek measures that reliably differentiate the sub-group from the whole population. That seems a useful thing to do—as useful, for example, as comparing urban eco-systems on the 40th parallel with all eco-systems—not to see if they are normal, but to see how they differ.
Recently it has become big business to sell access to these databases to clinicians wanting to train individual brains with the idea that by training to change multiple measures all over the brain at the same time to make them more “average”, an individual’s brain will become more functional.
What is “Normal”
The so-called “norms” produced by these databases are actually means with a range of standard deviations around them. Hence the term “average” brain might be more accurate. They describe the brain by producing dozens of overlapping bell-shaped curves.
Most of us would not expect a poet and an accountant to have the same brain. So which one would be “normal”? Since one is probably strong in language and imagery, the other with numbers, likely NEITHER of them is exactly average. Certainly one could argue that the people we most look up to are by definition “abnormal” in some way. Blindly training every brain to become average in every way has at least as much potential to get rid of things we like in ourselves as it does to help us function better.
Where Normal Works
The concept of normal may be useful in an anthill or a beehive or an assembly line. There individuals are not really expected to be individuals but rather parts of a macro entity (the hive or the colony). In those cases the individual is what he does. But, at least in western culture, it is the very differences each individual has from the template that make him or her special or desirable or valuable. We recognize that it is our brains—our highly individualized sets of energy habits that have grown up around what we have experienced in our lives and what we originally brought to them—that produce our specific genius, our passions and our uniqueness.
Physicians can measure functions of a pancreas or a heart or a bladder, look at relationships in our blood. They can compare these relatively simple and functional systems against population norms to identify health problems. But a brain is not a kidney. It is performing hundreds and thousands of functions every moment. It is constantly redefining itself, screening, integrating and responding to dozens of inputs each millisecond, producing thoughts and actions, remembering, feeling, regulating. It literally, as we discussed earlier, creates the very universe in which each one of us lives.
The assumption that such a remarkably complex and multi-faceted system should be described by and aimed toward some statistical concept of normal would be laughable—if it were not the basis for so much of the work being done to teach brains to change themselves today.
Population databases can be useful in helping us identify particular types of brains. If a study of top musicians turns up several specific brain patterns that generally exist among them and are infrequently found in the “average” brain, that may be helpful in selecting people to study music.
Researchers have been seeking exactly such energy patterns relating to a wide range of desirable and undesirable traits. How do the brains of top performers differ from the rest of us? What makes the brains of highly creative problem-solvers stand out from those who think inside the box? What patterns correlate with depression or anger or fear? What kinds of brains have difficulty concentrating? These questions, and many more, have given us a basis for a simpler, less costly and more powerful way of assessing and training brains.