Defining or understanding normal would, in turn, help explain abnormal.
In conversation with a psychologist a few years ago, I happened to mention the word 'normal' in order to understand those who came to seek his counsel and those who did not. “First, what is normal?” he asked me pointedly. “Who is normal? How do you define it?”
As I paused to think about the definition of normal or at least what it means to me, he added another dimension to the notion: “We all have our quirks and preferences. Sometimes entire families exhibit a particular trait. They could talk abusively, even violently. To them that is perfectly normal.”
Since the advent of psychiatry, the question of what is normal or abnormal has formed one of its core inquiries. Defining or understanding normal would, in turn, help explain abnormal. It would determine if a patient has a disorder and needs expert help or not.
A few model theories have gained relevance. The first is the sociocultural model. Here, what is normal should fall within the social and cultural norms of a community. The other is a statistical model. “The average height of an Indian male is 5'5",” explains Dr Mrinal Jha of VIMHANS. “In the statistical norm, an average range is defined for a parameter, within which most of the population is expected to fall, so that deviations can be easily picked out.”
The functional or behavioural model emphasises the importance of behaviour that is adaptive and does not interfere with the functioning of an individual. A person could be particular about cleanliness. However, if this need for cleanliness becomes an obsession to the point that it affects his or her work and routine, then that lies beyond the range of normal. Behaviour should be such that it harms neither the individual nor others around.
The medical model looks at the absence of physiological or neurological pathology. Children are often checked for their ability to throw a ball, for example. It tests coordination between the mind and the hands, arms, fingers and feet, and speech among other checks. If there is no problem here, then all is okay.
Also, a person's thoughts are important, since it may impact his or her perception of reality. Does a person's self image match facts on the outside? In the film A Beautiful Mind, for instance, we see the delusions that cause mathematician John Nash to believe that undercover Soviet agents are pursuing him to kill him. That, clearly, isn't normal.
The difficulty of normal
Even so, experts admit that it is tough to define what exactly 'normal' is. “Because it is so difficult to define that which is normal, we have taken up the task of describing and defining that which is abnormal,” says Jha. “Experienced minds working in mental health have, therefore, formulated, and regularly revise a set of criteria to diagnose mental illnesses. If symptoms fall within such criteria, then there is mental illness. If not, then it is considered a manifestation of normal behaviour.”
Normal is a dynamic concept. It changes with time and context. I look at how young people are obsessed with their mobile, computer and TV screens and catch myself thinking that this cannot be normal. Even so, my initial conversation with the psychologist has made me acutely conscious of the word, and how loosely we tend to use it.