You may have heard the saying “normal is just a setting on a washing machine” as a justification for behavior that might be considered out of the ordinary or even weird.
Now, new research shows that this adage might hold more merit as some variability in our brain’s thoughts and behaviors, even those that don’t line up with idealized notions of mental health, showcase our adaptability and could even be considered healthy.
A study conducted by researchers from Yale University reviewed widely challenged traditional psychological methods of categorizing and diagnosing disorders.
Their findings, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, focus on a new “dimensional perspective” of mental health disorders that account for variability across a wide spectrum.
“I would argue that there is no fixed normal,” said Avram Holmes, the senior author of the study. “There’s a level of variability in every one of our behaviors. Any behavior is neither solely negative or solely positive. There are potential benefits for both, depending on the context you’re placed in.”
Variability is a fundamental cornerstone of natural selection and evolution, and the researchers argue that this must be taken into consideration when working towards a diagnosis.
Some behaviors that may be out of sync with what we might consider normal could be an adaptive measure.
Holmes uses an example of impulsive, risk-taking behavior to show how any behavior may be beneficial depending on the environment. Thrill seekers and risk takers are usually associated with an increased likelihood of substance abuse or physical injury.
“But if you flip it on its head and look at potential positive outcomes, those same individuals may also thrive in complex and bustling environments where it’s appropriate for them to take risks and seek thrills,” said Holmes.
The problem is that if you factor in variability, it complicates methods for diagnosing mental disorders.
This is why more and more effort is being made to restructure the way health experts identify biomarkers for psychological illness.
“What we want to try to do is build multivariate approaches that consider multiple domains of human behavior simultaneously, to see if we can boost our power in predicting eventual outcomes for folks,” said Holmes.
Collaborations are already underway with different institutions in order to achieve this goal, and Holmes notes that accounting for some variability is important in many aspects of our lives, not just mental health.
“This is a broader issue with our society, but we’re all striving towards some artificial, archetypal ideal, whether it’s physical appearance or youthfulness or intelligence or personality,” said Holmes. “But we need to recognize the importance of variability, both in ourselves and in the people around us. Because it does serve an adaptive purpose in our lives.”