“The Other Side of Normal” by Jordan Smoller

You’d like to think you’re a normal person.

You shop for clothes where others shop. You like singing along with the radio (whether you do it well or not), watching TV, hanging with friends, playing with pets, hobbies, and being with family.

One hundred percent, no-two-ways-about-it… normal.

But if you hate TV, never shop, don’t like pets, what then? Surely, you’re not abnormal? Either way, author Jordan Smoller says that biology has shaped your preferences and behavior. In his new book, “The Other Side of Normal,” he explains.

Let’s say you have a major phobia about snakes. You thought you saw a snake lurking in the yard once, and the mere grimacing thought makes you jumpy. It’s almost as if they’re looking for you.

Phobic, delusional, and paranoid. That’s you, and Smoller says that’s normal – and, to a degree, abnormal.

“By the latest accounting,” he says, “more than half of all Americans meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder at some time in their lives.”

You can blame that on biology, he says, because much of who you are is hard-wired, brain-wise. Natal temperament affects personality, too, as do childhood experiences, nurturing, and genetics. Circumstance also changes your place on the normal/abnormal behavior scale.

Take, for instance, that snake in the grass.

You may feel disgust that he’s out there (disgust being a biological response), but that feeling might not be as strong if you only saw a photo of him. If your mother let your brother to torment you with a rubber snake, that comes into play. And even if you didn’t see the snake but you observed someone gazing at the grass with horror, you’re biologically wired to face-read, mind-read, trust – and run!

Then again, let’s say you saw the snake and you thought it was beautiful. The biological attraction to beauty might make you pick it up and if it’s just a baby snake, it’s in luck: you’re biologically wired for cute, too.

“The Other Side or Normal” is a little like a single-bed quilt: there are lots of colorful, imaginative patches, surrounded by an equal amount of gray. The bits are sewn together well, but it doesn’t seem to cover things like you wish it would.

I appreciated that author Jordan Smoller uses personal experiences in treating psychological disorders to illustrate how biology contributes to behavior. I liked how he explains psychiatric classifications and their overall relevance to and incompatibility with biologically-based actions. I was astounded by the number of studies he uncovered, and how antiquatedly cruel they seem today.

But “The Other Side of Normal” delves into a lot of brain science, the kind of stuff that’s been written in dozens (if not hundreds) of other similar books. It’s interesting but not unfamiliar, and my biological tendency was to mind-wander.

I think that, if you’re new or absolutely fascinated by brain science, reading “The Other Side of Normal” is an excellent way to occupy your noggin. If you’re familiar with this subject already, though, it might be normal to take a pass.