Phrenology, the notion that specific human characteristics are reflected in the bumps and contours of the skull, was ultimately discredited. But Franz Joseph Gall’s idea of regional specialisation of the brain was on the money. Entire regions of the brain are indeed dedicated to the various tasks that add up to a human identity: vision, hearing, decision-making, and so on.
Gall’s genius informed the structure of abNormal. At one level, I simply wanted to explore an idea that preoccupies every human being: their own ‘normality’, and their perceptions of others’ mental states. But I also wondered, is it possible to make a film about the mind that echoes the structure of the brain, and represents its disparate specialised functions? And so I came to select the stars of abNormal.
None of the film’s subjects are, to my mind, ‘normal’. The chess player, Alexandros, represents the brain’s capacity for higher functions and decision-making, located in the frontal lobes just underneath the forehead. Bret, the dancer, personifies movement or motor skills, located as a long, narrow strip from the top of the brain down towards the ears.
Dawn, our taxi driver, embodies the ability to manufacture new memories and recall old ones – the foundation of human identity and a quality distributed throughout the brain. Ebullient architect Claire excels at spatial thinking, a skill due in part to her parietal lobes towards the rear of the brain (thanks to this, London commuters now have an easier time moving around King’s Cross Underground station).
Yuewei, the wistful artist, embodies the human capacity for creativity with a strong focus on vision, a facet of the brain located, counter-intuitively, right at the back within the occipital lobes. And finally, Eric, the brilliantly philosophical musician, inhabits a world of sound and represents the brain’s temporal lobes, low down on each side of the brain.
To reinforce each person’s function within the film, and to further play with ideas of normality, I presented them all very differently. The artist appears on screen as she answers questions but almost always silently, her voice drifting over static features. The architect appears in boxes, often within a multi-screen shot, emphasising her spatial thinking, and so on.
For the first half of the film, the participants are shown one at a time – the dancer dances, the taxi driver drives… But then I start to mix things up. The architect is talking but we see dancing or the artist. This is an attempt to bring all the components of the brain together, creating the impression of a single, functioning mind built from different regions with differing specialties.
What really surprised me, however, was my interview with the psychiatrist Professor Peter Fonagy. One of my favourite things in film-making is what I term ‘meta’: a moment when the documentary – often through chance – gives you something beyond your expectations. Until I spoke to Peter, I’d been happy to make a film about normality and the brain – subjects he covered brilliantly. But then he blew the film wide open with his insights into society and mental health. He gave me a meta-moment, and so the film became centred not just on what it means to be normal, but also on the idea that modern living is slowly eroding our mental health.
But does that mean being ‘normal’ is not such a good thing? Personally, I think it’s massively underrated.