An introduction to neurodiversity and why this is a better model of mental health than typical/atypical. We will briefly look at two of the aspects of early mental health that led to a this false dichotomy and have a breif look at cognitive biases – common categorisation errors.
Previously [link] we talked about how evolution requires diversity within a species to be strong and robust. We saw that eugenics corrupted this concept of “diversity is good” and changed into “diversity is bad” using the erroneous logic of god’s blueprint, which led to the support of oppression, attrocities and genocide.
In Part 2 [link] we saw how the push back of this idea led to the medical model defining all people as the same, regardless of common clearly different internal biology, such as testes vs ovaries, different blood types and immune systems. We established that it is logical that there is more than one variant of human brain.
Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879 and is often considered the father of modern psychology. However the guiding cornerstone of western psychology is the DSM – the USA The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . To push psychology from an art into a science required experimenting on humans and other animals, to test hypotheses and rule out ideas that did not actually stand up.
This is a good thing.
The easiest source of human test subjects in the USA at universities are students, which, due to the nature of education decisions in the USA, are mostly “prosperous caucasians males”. These experiments would then be compared to other results from universities using a similar cohort, prosperous caucasian males, which frequently validated the findings.
This was the search for the baseline of “normal”. Once you have a baseline for normal, you can then define abnormal as a deviation from this.
And while their findings for prosperous caucasian males was mostly internally consistent, it is not valid to use that data to define what “not prosperous” or “not caucasian” or “not male” people should be like.
These findings reinforced the idea that money is god’s blessing, white is better and males are superior. The consequence of “prosperous cauasian males” being used as the baseline is that being impoverished, not white or not male makes you … “lesser”. We talked in Part 2 about how scientists are human first and have to work past their own biases. This is an example of that.
To give you an analogy, if I wanted to know what the contents of my fridge are from a random sample only taken from the freezer, I would assume that my fridge only contains frozen potatoes cut up into long rectangles aka chips. While this might be true, it probably isn’t. If the baseline is chips – that is, chips are “normal” or “typical” fridge contents, then other vegetables and soft drinks are anomalous, and are “abnormal” or “atypical”.
Scientifically, normal is just the most common example you find in the place that you are in.
Consider currency. The most common currency I find around me is Australian Dollars. It seems to be everywhere that I look. Each store accepts it and only gives it back. Based on the old psychological way of defining mental health, anywhere I go in the world that doesn’t deal in Australian dollars is irregular, abnormal and atypical.
Clearly this is wrong – each local area, aka country, has their own financial system which is valid for there and me trying to use my Australian Dollars there is me trying to push my assumptions on the local system, and it is wrong to do so.
So while prosperous caucasian males may react, behave and have basic systems that are fairly common amongst prosperous caucasian males, to compare everyone else in the world to them is weird. Yet that is what we do.
Abnormal psychology was based on those people in facilities who were admitted due to being distressed, dangerously dysfunctional or a danger to themselves or others. Our gaols are full of people who would not be there if their mental health was better. Categorising people based on their distress has merit for treating that particular distress, but when the category of distress labels the person as an illness, that is also erroneous.
The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. They have been working on turning various health knowledge into a globally applicable format. While the World Health Organization has made some excellent progress with this, they still have a long way to go.
Judy Singer, a fellow Australian, created the counter to neurotypical and neuro-atypical in 1990. She called it neurodiversity. Her goal was to shift the idea of one baseline for how brains work, to recognising that there is a diversity of human brains that are all valid.
Putting this back in the terms of money, recognising that other forms of currency work fine, so long as you know how they work. We can pay with cash, with credit, with debit, with crypto, with barter and so on. It recognises that different countries will have different values and methodologies and that they all work, but that some adjustments need to be made when mixing them. There is no master currency, or “normal” currency – just locally dominant currency.
While Judy Singer identifies as someone on the Autism Spectrum, and the Autism Association was quick to adopt the term, Autism is not the only brain type that is a divergence.
Let us take a brief detour down a common human bias – categorisation. We like things to be in baskets that we can label.
Plato, a Greek Philosopher from around 400 BCE, said that the world was a reflection of forms. Somewhere there is the idea of a perfect chair and that all chairs are imperfect reflections of this, and somewhere there is a perfect table and all tables are imperfect reflections of this. He used it to explain why we could look at a table and just know it was a table, and look at a chair and just know it is a chair. So far, so good.
A foot stool is a strange thing. You put your feet on it when you are in a chair. Yet you can also sit on it, turning it from a stool for your feet into a chair. You could also put objects on it, which turns it from a stool or chair into a table for your stuff. Which of these ideal forms does a foot stool imperfectly reflect? Chair or table?
The problem that Plato was trying to grapple with is the problem of categories. We want categories to have hard boundaries – “This is a chair” and “This is a table”. Categories almost never have hard boundaries – they have soft boundaries. A foot stool is neither a chair nor a table. It turns out that our two hard bounded categories are more of a … spectrum.
We humans love to put everything that we can into categories. It is a useful tool to simplify knowledge. This is a fruit, that is a vegetable. Except that it isn’t.
The tomato is technically a fruit, because it has seeds on the inside. But you don’t put it in your fruit salad. Pumpkin and cucumber are also fruits. Fruit is a classification of vegetables. When we look at things that are “not fruit” we don’t get “vegetable”, because fruits are vegetables.
“Vegetable – a plant or part of a plant used as food”
An item that we often refer to as a vegetable is the potato. While the potato fits in the super category of vegetable, it is in the subcategory of root. If we are going to separate fruit out of vegetables, we should similarly separate roots out of vegetables. Every plant we eat is both a vegetable in the super category, and also in a subcategory like fruit and roots.
This is an example of where things are phrased as opposites, but actually aren’t, they are part of a super category.
By defining what normal looks like, the early scientists accidentally defined everything else as abnormal, rather than a different normal. It is not that the potato is not an abnormal fruit, it is that they are both vegetables.
Someone who does not fit the category of “prosperous caucasian male” is not “abnormal” or “atypical”. They are just human.
While modern mental health has moved away from typical and atypical, practitioners of older ideas of mental health still cling to this idea. To quote Max Plank, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” – that is, science progresses one funeral at a time.
So what is this neurodiversity thing? It is the recognition that there are lots of different ways that people think about ideas and process information that is a basic biological difference that is equally valid to the brains commonly found in prosperous caucasian males.
If you recall that in Part 1 we discussed how evolution loves to have diversity in the species, we can see how diversity of brains allows for humans to survive and manage all kinds of environments and environmental challenges. Most of our more amazing scientific and engineering discoveries began by someone thinking outside of the box of everyone else’s thinking.
The dichotomy of “typical” vs “atypical” based on prosperous caucasiona males is wrong. Nor is it a spectrum from “typical” through “diverse” to “atypical”.
Instead we need to start thinking in a different picture. The “neurotypical brain” is the most common default in your local area. It is going to be based more on traits than skin colour, sexual organs, prosperity or cultural norms. As such, there is going to be quite a bit of diversity just in neurotypical.
We are going to recognise that other clusters of traits exist which we can slap some labels on for simplicity. Such as Autism, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity, or Borderline Personality, or Alternative Cognitive Processing, to name just a few. We are going to have to recognise that these labels don’t lie on a single line from “normal” to “abnormal”, and that these labels are not disorders, and that these labels are not pervasive – they don’t tell you what the individual’s favourite colour is, how tall they are or what they want to achieve in life.
A simple typical or atypical picture of mental health is wrong. A single axis of neurodiversity is wrong. Neurodiversity is more intelligently shown as traits on multiple axes, but even that is simplistic. We need to remember that while labels are convenient for quick evaluation, they can blind us into thinking that everything can be labeled, that nothing exists between those labels, and that things can’t move between labels as they grow.
If all brain types are valid, then what is mental health about then?
This shifts mental health from defining what a “normal brain” and “abnormal brain” is based on an erroneous definition; to instead focus on what is healthy and unhealthy. This shifts the focus from defining the person to defining the trait. It allows for a range of different lifestyles and processes to be included as healthy and defines mental ill health as mental distress, life dysfunction and choices that endanger the self and others.
Each of these can be addressed without invalidating the person.