What do a dancer, a chess player, a visual artist, a trumpeter, an architect, and a cab driver have in common? In the case of the dancer, the chess player, the visual artist, the trumpeter, the architect, and the cab driver profiled in trained molecular biologist and neuroscientist and The Rough Guide to the Brain author Barry J. Gibb’s abNormal above, they share... well, abnormality, in some sense or another. This half-hour documentary, which Gibb made in consultation with psychologist and neuroimaging researcher Chris Frith, “points a microscope at human behaviour, asking viewers to question their perceptions of others and even of themselves.” An ambitious mandate, especially when you consider its central question: we know what we mean when we think of someone else as abnormal, but what do all these other people — people whom we might indeed find abnormal, for good, ill, or both — consider abnormal? Do they consider themselves abnormal? And how do we define normality, let alone abnormality, in the first place?
A tangled question, bordering on nonsense, but science can, as usual, clarify a few things. abNormal finds answers, or at least the appropriate questions, in the workings of the human brain. It comes as an early offering from Mosaic, a new site from the Wellcome Trust “dedicated to exploring the science of life” by telling “stories with real depth about the ideas, trends and people that drive contemporary life sciences,” all published as Creative Commons-licensed content. In this case, a set of human stories — the frustrated IT worker who ditched the office job to become a London cabbie, the Thai painter who makes large-form works with three-dimensional nipples, the breakdancer bent on recreating and improving on 1982 with his body alone — converge to elucidate a deeper scientific narrative about our brains, our environments, and the forms our lives take today.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.