May 1, 2020 • 1HR 11M

Brain science is showing what "normal" mental health is. Can it also help us evolve humankind?

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Appears in this episode

Whitney McKnight
For citizens seeking deep mental roots, not lists of shallow instructions.
Episode details

vol. 2 issue 18

Photo: Tara Thiagarajan, PhD, courtesy of Sapien Labs.


Key to docu-mental is the discovery of how mental illness diagnoses have the power to promote or restrict democracy and freedom. To assess this, it’s essential to be clear on just what mental “illness” is, how it is defined, who is determining that definition, and for what purpose.

docu-mental already stirred up a ruckus with the previous two podcasts dedicated to these questions, in which we explored the extremes between mental illness diagnoses as arbitrary constructs that favor profit, to them being essential for the health of those who truly suffer from potentially severe disease.

This episode of the docu-mental podcast is especially rich and provocative, and returns to the questions of who gets to decide what normal is and on what bases, and offers a novel perspective thanks to cutting edge brain science.

My guest is Stanford neuroscientist Tara Thiagarajan, PhD, founder of Sapien Labs and creator of the Mental Health Quotient. Dr. Thiagarajan has been applying her background in neural network physiology to build a global database that matches brain activity with cognitive and emotional states in order to provide hard science that shows what the range of good and normal mental health actually is so we can once and for all answer the question of what does it mean to have good mental health, even across a range of highly diverse populations.

“If we don’t understand the whole spectrum of how people behave, we don’t really know where to draw the line between what is normal and abnormal,” Dr. Thiagarajan says in this interview. “How do we define mental well-being? Until now, there have been no tools that account for the full spectrum of human responses to life’s experiences.”

In describing her work, Dr. Thiagarajan addresses three key shortcomings of our current mental health diagnostic tools: mental illnesses themselves are ambiguously defined, mostly according to symptom clusters instead of actual underlying diseases; screening tools are highly inconsistent; and they are negatively biased, meaning they don’t look for how symptoms might also be positively adaptive.

“A lot of assessments don’t consider the consequences of the symptoms. Something could be flagged as problematic, like sadness, but perhaps that is a marker of empathy that makes a person better at work,” Dr. Thiagarajan explains.

To address these shortcoming, Dr. Thiagarajan and her colleagues have created the Mental Health Quotient, an online survey tool that anyone can take at any time. Data from all the survey participants is collected anonymously and analyzed to track population mental health status worldwide. It’s forming the basis for a global repository of data on “normal” and “abnormal” mental health states.

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