The Other Side of Normal: How Biology Is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior

Jordan Smoller

Language: English

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: May 8, 2012


In this enthralling work of popular science, respected Harvard psychiatrist Jordan Smoller addresses one of humankind’s most enduring and perplexing questions: What does it mean to be “normal?” In The Other Side of Normal , Smoller explores the biological component of normalcy, revealing the hidden side of our everyday behaviors—why we love what we love and fear what we fear. Other bestselling works of neurobiology and the mind have focused on mental illness and abnormal behaviors—like the Oliver Sacks classic, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat —but The Other Side of Normal is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, utterly fascinating and totally accessible exploration of the universals of human experience. It will change forever our understanding of who we are and what makes us that way.

From Booklist

Enlisting research in evolutionary biology, genetics, and psychology, along with advances in molecular neuroscience and neuroimaging, Harvard psychiatrist Smoller redefines the biology of normal. Genetic variation, natural selection, environment, and unique individual experiences coalesce in molding our social and emotional selves. He considers the neural basis of social cognition, empathy, and even love, both the romantic and maternal varieties. Smoller maps out the biology of disgust, resiliency, and fear and then correlates these phenomena with anatomical areas of the brain—the insula, hippocampus, and amygdala, respectively. We learn that our memories get resculpted. And that oxytocin, a peptide hormone consisting of a measly nine amino acids, works like a love potion in women and also stimulates trust. In the fetching chapter The Brain of the Beholder: Beauty and Sexual Attraction, we find out that evolution seems to favor symmetrical facial features and statistically middling appearances rather than an exotic visage. In the worlds of psychiatry and neuroscience, normal is hardly average nor necessarily an ideal state but, rather, a landscape of human possibility. --Tony Miksanek


“Move over Oliver Sacks - I couldn’t put this fascinating book down! Path-breaking and witty, as entertaining as it is informative, The Other Side of Normal is filled with insights into why we behave as we do and how biology determines so much of our emotional makeup. A brilliant mind and dazzling writer, Smoller has written a book that will change the way you look at every day life.” — Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and New York Times bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

“Exciting... provocative...Clearly and articulately, he ties evolutionary psychology, biological psychiatry, animal behavior, and related fields into a package of rare coherence.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Highly interesting and accessible study of brain science and behavior....This thoroughly documented work provides enough information to satisfy the science-savvy without leaving the rest of us behind....Readers will be fascinated.” — Library Journal

“An informative overview of research in neuroscience that provides a scientific foundation for understanding mental disorders.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Smoller redefines the biology of normal.” — Booklist

“Are we born crazy, or is crazy thrust upon us? Smoller investigates.” — Denver Post

From the Back Cover

Psychiatry has ignored the normal. The focus on defining abnormal behavior has obscured what turns out to be a more fundamental question—how does the biology of the brain give rise to the mind, which in turn gives rise to everything we care about: thoughts, feelings, desires, and relationships?

In The Other Side of Normal , Harvard psychiatrist Jordan Smoller shows us that understanding what the mind was designed to do in the first place demystifies mental illness and builds a new foundation for defining psychiatric disorders—from autism to depression. Smoller argues there are no bright lines between normal and abnormal. Psychiatric disorders are variations of the same brain systems that evolved to help us solve the challenges of everyday life.

How do we become who we are? Smoller explains where our personalities come from, and how the temperaments we had as infants actually stay with us into adulthood. Why do we choose to date, love, and marry the people we do? Why do some of us form healthy relationships while others form unstable ones? Our relationships are shaped by the biology that drives two imperatives: maternal-child bonding and child-parent attachment.

Along the way, Smoller tackles an even greater question—what do we mean by "normal"?—as he explores the puzzles behind the epidemics of multiple personalities and koro, the shocking phobia that one's penis is shrinking. He also looks at the controversial history of psychiatric classification and the explosive debates over how much early experiences influence our minds and to what degree genetics affect our temperaments, personalities, and emotional lives. Throughout this examination, Smoller explores the hidden sides of such questions as: How are trust and love rooted in biology? How much does sexual attraction stem from biology rather than culture? And what can the scientific study of normal behavior tell us about what it means to be human?

Based on the author's groundbreaking research and personal experiences treating psychological disorders, The Other Side of Normal changes the way we think about the human condition.

About the Author

Jordan Smoller is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.