The Quest for Normality

A friend of mine who is knowledgeable about neuroscience once told me that only one person in 1,000 has a normal brain. In a purely statistical sense, that means that normal is actually weirder than weird: mostly, it just serves as a useful reference point so that all the weird people can articulate the ways in which they’re weird to one another.

But even if you were to find a normal person and ask them what their dreams were like, I doubt they could tell you what a normal dream is. To do that, they would have to be a normal person with normal concerns playing a normal role in a normal society with a normal view on dreams—and at that point, normality becomes totally meaningless. No wonder researchers prefer just taking the average. Does it really matter so much if your ‘normal’ has a little ‘weird’ in it?

This is why the concept of a default, normal dream is such a questionable one: dreams exist in a dynamic relationship with the dreamer’s life, and normality in life is not an easy concept to measure. It is probably also why there is no universally accepted definition of what a dream is: there are many styles of dreaming, potentially as many as there are dreamers.

‘Style’ is a good word to use here: in writing, too, there is no such thing as a normal style, and efforts to define one start to look outdated pretty quickly. As with writing, dreaming style tends to become more pronounced as people take an interest in their dreams. If you tried to determine the average writing style in a society that devalued literacy the way mainstream Western society devalues dreaming, you would probably discover that it was muddled, confused, and not communicating anything worth knowing. If you then created a theory on the nature of writing based on your results—well, I guess you’d end up with the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis of literature.

Devaluing dreams is typically Western; so is the view of dreaming as an inward-looking state, which is what makes dreaming one of those conversation topics. Everybody knows that other people’s dreams are boring—or else a little too interesting. As private affairs, it is unreasonable to expect strangers or casual acquaintances to take an interest in them.

But the society where the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” was formulated probably took a very different view of dreams. I say ‘probably’ because I haven’t done the research, but I know that the Western view is unusual, possibly even unique. Traditionally, dreaming has been a community affair.

For dreamers to have individual styles—at least, those who care enough about their dreams to pay attention to them— is also characteristic of the westernized world rather than characteristic of dreams in general. Here, too, there is a parallel in art: Western artists tend to have individual styles, but if you look at ancient Egyptian art, or Aztec art, you only see one style.*

This gives a poignancy to the quest for normality, which is also typically Western. We are the weird ones—all together, and each of us alone.

*With exceptions, of course.


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