Warning: viewers may no longer feel normal after watching this film.
Are you normal? What does it mean to be normal? Is it a good thing, or does it mean you’re just plain dull? Is being abnormal more fun, does it make us seem more kooky, quirky, individual – or could it mean we’re cut off from society, perceived as odd or even mentally ill?
abNormal is a 30-minute documentary from Mosaic, exploring and celebrating what it means to be normal. Looking through the eyes of several very different minds, with their own unique talents and perspectives, the film points a microscope at human behaviour, asking viewers to question their perceptions of others and even of themselves. And, as society grows ever more into a disconnected suburban sprawl, abNormal asks whether the way we live our lives threatens our mental health.
Cab driver: What is normal?
Voice: The number of possible connections in the brain is bigger than the number of particles in the universe.
Psychiatrist: Within the way that we drive society there is, built in, cause for mental ill health.
Musician: I love that word normal [Laughs]. It sounds cool.
Psychiatrist: Behaviour that we can predict on the basis on our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of others we conceive of as normal. Behaviour that is outside of our ken, that we cannot somehow comprehend very well, has much greater chance of being described as anomalous or abnormal. If everybody behaved abnormally, we would be living in chaos.
Tactician: Does anybody consider themselves to be normal? I don't think I've got a balanced approach to this [playing chess] because it probably takes up too much of my time and it is very addictive.
Musician: No, no it's definitely not normal. [Laughs]
Dancer: No, I don't… I think my approach to dance is a little bit hypocritical actually. I don't like attention, yet when I receive it from dance I feel really good. I like to be an individual, I like to be different than everybody else, but when no one understands my dancing I try to change it a bit so they do.
Cab driver: I would say normal's a bit too easy for me; I'd rather be a bit off balance. Not necessarily completely shocking, but – well, maybe borderline [Laughs].
Artist: When I compare my lifestyle to other people, I think I'm quite normal. Some people would say my work is very graphic. I visited this beach place in Thailand; I had a sort of culture shock where this woman just stripped naked and laid on the beach, but you know, in a Thai culture nobody would do that, so that was sort of a shock to me and I wanted to have a similar kind of shocking effect in my paintings, so when I came back from the trip I painted a mountain with 3D breasts coming out.
Architect: I think the more I see, the more I realise that I am the product of a very specific set of experiences, acquaintances, relationships, opportunities – and so, no, I don't think I do consider myself normal. I mean, what on earth is the norm against which anyone would be judged to be abnormal? And I suppose you think of mental illness…
Psychiatrist: The concept of mental health is on the whole defined in terms of illness. We all know someone who has a mental health problem. You know, somewhere between 10, 20% of the population are affected by it in quite a serious way, so it's more like the common cold, really – but more severe.
I deeply, deeply believe that it shouldn't be bad to be abnormal; to manifest behaviours that you do not want to manifest; to have thoughts and feelings that you do not want to feel, that make you less desirable to people around you, make you incomprehensible to the people around you and divide you off from the social group that you live in. Then on top of that, not only do you feel that sense of – but for the group then to turn on you and to say you shouldn't be doing – you are an evil and wicked person for doing all these things that you can't help doing, it's just it's bad business.
Musician: But I think everybody is really un-normal in a way, they just haven't, haven't let themselves go. What do people do behind closed doors? Maybe they're running around the room or totally naked, but that's normal because everybody does that at some point. If we were to take away the trumpet from my life I'd probably be a normal person but it's caused me to do un-normal things, you know, like buzz my lips in a train station or pull my horn out on the street. But if you look for those kind of weird things, then you'll see them.
Tactician: You see this in a lot of chess players; they develop imbalances or extreme forms of behaviour, sort of paranoia. It can bring out the worst traits of somebody's personality and behaviours. Some of the best players have had extremely abnormal behaviours, almost obsessive–compulsive behaviours, in how they sit at the board, how they touch the pieces. Some of them are very superstitious; some of them feel they need to sit with their backs against the wall.
Artist: To an extent actually, some people who are really very in their own little world and not caring about outside, I think to me that's a bit abnormal because I think you should be aware of what's around you.
Cab driver: If someone had done something wrong maybe, that would be not the norm, wouldn't it? Or had done something cruel, maybe something like that, that's what I would say.
Architect: I see the label “abnormal” as being the outcome of a process of making a judgement. My sense is that abnormal would be somebody who doesn't operate within the agreed norms of social behaviour.
Dancer: I loved music, and it just sort of happened. No one told me how to do it, what to do. At the time, where I was doing it, it didn't exist; there was no scene of the danceform “breaking”, and I went to a rave, and in the middle of all the glowstick insanity, there was a guy who was straight out of 1982 doing old-school footwork, and it just blew my mind, I just focused on this guy for the entire night and I thought, “This is what I'm going to do.”
Tactician: I started playing chess at the age of eight, and since then really I've been bitten by the chess bug. I don't think a day goes by where I'm not analysing something or thinking about it. I don't think I could imagine life without chess.
Architect: To take a narrow definition, we make buildings. As an architect personally, I'm really interested in the spaces between buildings and in the infrastructure that ties the city together. It's a wonderful starting point for engaging with the world around you, and trying to understand the bigger picture, one's place in the world, how the world is changing, how people are growing …
Cab driver: I was working for a corporate law firm in IT, and I was pretty fed up with the corporate world, pretty much fed up with toeing the line I think, and a friend of mine was doing The Knowledge. I didn't have a lot going on in my life at the time, I thought I'd do it as a bit of a hobby – and then you get sucked into it and it becomes an obsession, and it's probably the best thing I've ever done for me personally. Losing that “rat race” feeling, you can't put a price on it.
Artist: When I was young, my parents, my friends always told me, "Oh you're really good at art". I'm okay with all the other subjects – I like biology as well, and history – but art just sort of stood out. I kind of wanted to compete when I'm doing art, I want to challenge myself.
Musician: Well, I think I was put on this earth to be a songwriter. I like to create, I like to take risks, I like to dream. I'm a … what am I? It's a good question.
Psychiatrist: Looking at the brain at the level of white matter, grey matter, doesn’t really – that's all there is – but it actually doesn't add up to all the things that it can do. It in some way creates a version of reality; how it does it, the next 100 years will tell us. What the gross system is, I think we understand reasonably well – that it's a combination of a constant loop of detection, computation of the implication and decision-making in terms of an appropriate reaction. Even now, we only understand enough to have enormous respect for what the brain can achieve.
You can look at the firing of a single nerve cell, and that underpins behaviour in a very, very real sense. But just to take that particular piece of biology and isolate it and reify it, and make it as if that was what underpinned that behaviour, in a sense shortchanges us. And yet, when you start thinking about abnormalities in the brain, it can be in the chemistry of the communication between nerve cells that a solution to some important anomalies lies.
Tactician: When you sit down to play a match, the adrenaline's pumping. You're preparing yourself mentally, you're visualising what might happen, you're bringing back past successes. During the game, there are a lot of emotions that come out, and it teaches you to control those emotions, because if you don't it could be the reason why you lose the game. You know, your brain is working overtime; it's basically trying to recognise the pattern – chess players always think about patterns; what is the important pattern that I recognise here, what should I be doing? When you create something that is beautiful, in the eyes of players who understand what's behind the move, you can't really match it.
Musician: There are so many different parts of what music means to me. Music is, is … the first, most important part is the effect that it’s had on me. It's like an addiction, really – it's like you find something you like and you play it over and over again until it just … you really can never get sick of it, I mean that's what propels me to listen and find music that I like. I want to write music that's orgasmic; you know, when someone listens to it, it's like it releases a feeling in their body like there's something sweet about it, there's something beautiful about it, there's something that you can't put your finger on. Over time, I would try and get that feeling of when I’d listen to something that was really great – I try and get that same feeling when I listen to my own music and, you know, it'd be kind of like my own drug factory, like I need heroin so I'm going to make heroin or imagine heroin and then take it and then keep trying to make a stronger version of heroin.
Dancer: It's quite addictive because it's a high. It is like flying, it's a total freedom. It can be very frustrating at times when you can't reach that again, but when everything's right, the music's right, the mood is right, it's a high, it's just total freedom. For the lack of a better description, it's like sex, it's a purely physical release, it's emotional, it's very personal, even though you share it with other people – everyone you're sharing it with is having that same amazing personal experience. It's not something you choose to do, it's something that you have to do. That's why I work a job and do it at night afterwards every day, because if I don't I get depressed, I get moody. It's not for a living, it's not to compete, it's not to get famous or wealthy, it's just natural, it's a part of who you are. If you're a dancer, it's just a part of who you are.
Architect: You are exploring how does this surface relate to this surface, and how does that relate to what you're seeing beyond; where might the light be coming from as you start to put shade in? And so it's that process of creating, seeing something on paper really for the first time, and that sense that this has never existed before, and I have made something exist. You tend to get very involved in that drawing process and one of the reasons why, as architects, we use trace paper, is because it's really easy just to tear off another piece of trace, put it on top, copy the sketch that's underneath because you can see it through, but try changing something, try changing this, try changing that – and so, almost immediately, you begin that iterative process of going through, over and over again, how things might evolve, what if this, what if that? And it's so quick and it's so easy to do, and it's fun because you for that moment dwell in a sense of infinite possibility.
Artist: The ideas come from feelings. It's very free – we're allowed to paint anything we want, and right now I'm painting a lot of symbols and motifs, sort of comments on my own original culture, Chinese culture. I think in a way I'm exploring who I am. I think it's very abstract, you just have the right feeling for what you're doing, very intuitive.
Cab driver: What is The Knowledge? When you're tested on The Knowledge, that's what The Knowledge is about really. It's a one-to-one oral exam, and the examiner will say: “Take me from Holborn Station to Waterloo Station”, and you have to name the roads. You have to make sure you don't do a no-right-turn or stuff like that. They intimidate you, they shout at you while you're doing it. I think with The Knowledge, you teach yourself, you learn how to retain the information in a different way than what you would ordinarily do. So, once you've cracked that, then you can get it, do you know what I mean? They say that your brain grows during The Knowledge and, trust me, you get headaches. Also, with driving a cab, it becomes photographic as well. So, someone says a street name – you can either see what's on the street, or you can see the colours of the shops. I don't know if that's necessarily normal! [Laughs]
Psychiatrist: Within the way that we drive society, there is, built in, cause for mental ill health. The puzzle, if there is one, is if mental illness has increased in prevalence – and if you ask me about that, I would probably say that the answer is yes, on balance there probably is more mental ill health now than say 50 years ago.
Tactician: I don't think anybody can seriously say that people are getting more normal, given the number of conflicting interests in the world. I feel that society's becoming more unequal and therefore it can't be normal. We are becoming more siloed, more isolated, and it has become very materialistic, especially in the West, I think; much more self-centred. Everyone wants a bigger share of what's becoming a limited amount of resources out there.
Musician: Right now, driving cars and flying planes and doing functional things to make the economy run and to live your life in this society are normal, but that's going to change. I'm optimistic that every single little brain that walks on the planet is going to have a reason to push that word “normal” to the next level, and just keep making things that didn't seem normal, normal.
Psychiatrist: I think it's to do with the nature of the transmission of culture, and I personally blame Stevenson for this – he invented the steam engine and created railroads ultimately, and made people travel. That led to an exploitation of what is probably built into our DNAs about child rearing, which was having a large number of adults of the species around to bring up each child, and having genes in common with that individual invested in socialising that individual to become an effective member of the social group. Those societies actually, I think, were better fitting the human brain.
Dancer: It's really exciting right now. We're probably still a long way off, but I think the abnormal is much more accepted; we're all exposed so much more, to so many different cultures. You could say it's an assimilation and that's a bad thing – but I don't agree, because I think there's so much more in the mixing pot right now. Whether we end up all of us being more the same, I don't know if that'll happen – but for me personally, I just know myself that I'm exposed to so much more. It’s making me feel more abnormal, and it's making me feel better.
Architect: I think people are making some fairly reasonable judgements about where they want to distinguish themselves, and maybe that's a freedom that previous generations haven't had. There is increasing movement, even if it's incremental, of people between different places and ultimately between different cultures, and so I see that bringing differences. Now I suppose you could equally say that surely that brings the kind of “Gap-isation” of the world, where we all go to the same place to buy our clothes. But maybe that's because we don't care so much about how we look; I mean, I don't want people to look at me and to look at my clothes first – I want them to look at my face and to listen to me.
Psychologist: The social engineering that we've done, we've created nurseries and schools and universities even, to do the child rearing instead, to replace biological relatives, grandmothers, uncles, aunts; so in the end we equip our young people far less well. If we gave that a bit more time, a bit more effort, a bit more thought, and we were not so concerned as adults about our own pleasures, I think we would be able to reduce mental ill health by a very, very substantial margin.
Artist: I think it's becoming more abnormal in the sense that people are more unique. We are turning into a very globalised world and, in the larger picture, you see countries trying to identify their own culture. I think people will start to try to find out their own identity in this really massive world.
Cab driver: I think people are conforming because they're frightened not to. I think if you go back ten, twenty years to now, a lot of today is taking away the thinking so everything's sort of done for you, down to convenience processed foods, road signs ... You don't think, do you know what I mean? So there's not really a junction without traffic lights on it, so you're not looking, you're not thinking, so in that respect I think people probably are … Is that normal? Or are we just conforming? I don't know. What is normal?
Psychiatrist: [Laughs] Where did the idea of normality come from? Any organism that has a social life has to have normality. In human beings, as soon as we started to put, or evolution has started to put for us, such primacy on social collaboration for our survival, something like normality had to come to the foreground as valued and important. Normal behaviour is behaviour that is predictable by individuals in the culture in which they live. So you can't describe normal behaviour in terms of “common behaviour”; telling a funny joke is normal behaviour but very uncommon. Creative acts of any kind are abnormal, because they're rare, but if they're understandable and they're desirable, they become adopted and owned by the domain of normality.
Musician: Yeah, I think being normal, if you don't know anything else, it's a great thing.
Tactician: I don’t necessarily think it's a good thing to be normal. Normal has this tendency to equal average, and I think in all societies you need to have individuals who are talented in various ways and they develop that talent or skill. It's a human condition that people want to differentiate themselves.
Psychiatrist: There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to fit in. It is breathing, your heart beating, there's nothing wrong with it – you can't live without fitting in.
Dancer: My experience in being human [laughs] is that we all want to be different than each other. Nobody wants to be normal, and if they do, they might be hiding from who they really are.
Architect: I suppose I would say it's only a good thing in so far as we rely hugely on being able to communicate with people, and so if you can't operate within the world in a way that's perceived as at least normal enough that you can gain that confidence from people, then you won't ever be able to do anything. You won't be able to even start discovering what your potential is.
Artist: I used to imagine being an artist: “Oh, shall I go crazy? Do I need to be mentally unstable?” But then I look at people around me … artists are people, I think being normal is good.
Cab driver: I think if you're normal you're accepted, so maybe it's an easier thing to be, so maybe therefore do we strive to be normal because of that? But me personally, there's a little bit of me that always goes against the grain.
Psychiatrist: I think society's constructed to help us feel as normal as we can, to make us go to work in the morning and feel good for having gone to work and having done good things for other people, and then procreate and contribute to the gene pool, and then just die.
Tactician: I think the main things are that the brain can adapt to a vast number of different influences and stimuli and challenges.
Dancer: I think the most amazing thing about the brain is its potential. In my own lazy existence, I find that even when I push a little bit, I get so much more out of my own brain. I just think it's infinite.
Architect: Well, it's obvious that the brain can make connections between ideas and information, and because of that we're able to be creative, because we see always for the first time these potential linkages and patterns and possibilities.
Artist: I think, to be able to acquire things and make links between things.
Cab driver: I suppose, allowing us the ability to communicate and connect, and to feel.
Psychiatrist: The way the human brain can take itself out of a society that is living in the same way that people were living 20,000 years ago, and within a generation progress 22,000 years ... that is incredible, it's incredible.
Musician: It's just a big grey thing. I've been thinking about this lately actually, the subconscious and the conscious mind. I mean, this is all a dream already. This is all a dream.