Circular reasoning


Normal is regular. Average. Medium.

Normal is safe, familiar, warm and comfortable.

Normal is the thing you know.

It is what is.

But normal isn’t great.

Normal isn’t fantastic.

Normal can never be amazing.

These words from the Mini “Not Normal” Campaign summarize the paradox of normal. On the one hand, most people want to be considered normal; no-one wants to be thought of as abnormal. However, we don’t want to be thought of as only normal. We’d like to believe that we are unique, special, and different than everyone else, that is, not normal.

Normal is the most common thing that people are or the way most people act under a given set of circumstances. Because normal applies to most people, most people are, by definition, normal. It would difficult to have a functioning society if the majority of its people did not behave normally. Such a society would be in chaos, as everyone pushed the boundaries of normal behaviour.

However, society also requires a few people to not be normal. The great leaders, innovators, thinkers and agitators who push the world forward and change it for the better are not normal. Einstein, Michelangelo, Picasso, Freud, and Steve Jobs were exceptional, refused to accept the normal world they were born into (the status quo) and fought hard to change it. It is only after their accomplishments become well known and accepted that these individuals became part of the new normal.

Because normal applies to the mind, it’s a major component of psychiatry. People who act or think in an abnormal way, especially if it can cause them or others harm, should receive treatment. A desire to eat candies is normal, but a desire to eat several kilograms of candies a day is not. However, there is a sad history of labeling people abnormal or deviant who were simply different than others. There’s only a two letter difference between sane and insane, but in those two little letters lies all the difference.

Normal has a shape. Some shopping malls have large circular sculptures hanging from their ceilings. The reason for this is psychological. The malls are carefully designed to signify they are a safe and comfortable environment. When shoppers see circles, they see safety, because a circle has no sharp edges. People who feel safe and comfortable are more likely to have a longer shopping experience.

A sphere is a three-dimensional circle. Bubbles form naturally into spheres because it’s the smallest shape required to hold the air inside the soap film. Planets are spherical, because when they form, they are extremely hot, making the planet fluid; the planet eventually succumbs to the gravitational pull from its center. The best way to get the planet’s mass to the centre is to form a sphere – it is nature’s “laziest” shape.

Roundness, therefore, is a physical manifestation of normal. But there’s another subtler link between roundness and normal.

One way of measuring normal is to plot the values of something on a graph. For example, if you plot the ages, weights or heights of people, they would follow a pattern that looks like this:






This shape is called a normal distribution or bell curve. It’s a visual representation of what is normal. There’s a formula that represents this normal distribution. It’s a complex one but here it is:





At the bottom portion of this formula near the centre, you’ll see the number π (pi). If you remember your high school math, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, approximately 3.14. That is, at level of mathematics, there’s a connection between circles and how things are normally distributed.

Perhaps that is why so many things that we find normal are round, from the rings on our fingers, to the wheels we move on, the dishes we eat off and the buttons we press and dress with. It is why normal people are called “well rounded”.

Nature has methodically programmed into our world the desire for normal through this shape. Even the body parts we use to perceive roundness: the eye’s cornea, pupil, lens and retina, are themselves round. And we see it all while standing on the Earth, the largest, roundest shape of all.