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


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.

Having taken the survey myself, I can say it is easy to use and provides a snapshot of one’s state of mind in the moment. Rather than make a diagnosis based on that, it goes deeper, helping uncover how we cope with how our life is unfolding. In short, rather than view our various states of mind as pathological, it sees them in context of whether they are functioning as obstacles or tools for how we live our lives. For example, the score I got when I tool the survey indicated I am highly functioning, but if I chose to get better sleep, I would perhaps score higher on certain domains. This is empowering and leaves the choice up to me.

To date, the Mental Health Quotient study has tracked with epidemiological data, indicating that even though the data is self-reported, it is clinically valid, which public health policymakers should find reassuring. Another public health gold brick: the data also indicate who in the population truly do need mental health intervention but aren’t receiving it, and who among us are seeking mental health services even when they aren’t really necessary. Such data can help us readjust our expectations of what “normal” is utilization of our mental health system is more appropriate for the actual needs of the population.

I am especially excited by the implications of Dr. Thiagarajan’s work because, as she discusses in this podcast, without a way to account for the diversity of emotional and cognitive responses to life across an entire population, it’s easy to form policies that are only beneficial to some, and which potentially can be used to empower a few at others’ expense.

It’s been my contention that this is why mental health outcomes in the US, particularly our rates of anxiety and depression are so high and continue to climb higher: neither our public health nor our economic policies reflect the mental and emotional experiences of the entire population. I predict this will start to come into clearer focus, however, now that the pandemic has crashed our economy and caused serious distress across the nation.

Dr. Thiagarajan has thoughts on this, too. She and her colleagues have already conducted a study that shows unemployment has a more deleterious effect on clinical mental health than physical health challenges. Using the Mental Health Quotient data collected globally (it is available in a number of languages), Dr. Thiagarajan and her colleagues are creating an evolving global map of mental wellness in real time.

What excites me perhaps most of all about Dr. Thiagarajan’s work is that it begs the question as to whether it is possible for nations to create public policies predicated on the current mental health capacities of an entire population, regardless of how diverse, that help evolve that nation with harm to none. In a sense, the truest application of the Hippocratic Oath for all.

Wow. What a fantastic thought.

I hope you will listen and consider all the many possibilities Dr. Thiagarajan’s work suggest. And, I hope you will log on to the Mental Health Quotient and take the survey. In addition to learning more about yourself and how you adapt to life’s challenges, you will add to the database that is clarify what “normal” mental health is.

Links of interest:

Does psychiatry reduce or increase our suffering, and are we powerless to change how it is practiced?

When psychiatry is life-saving: In defense of diagnoses

The potential risks of hydroxychloroquine v. social distancing and its impact on mental health

If you enjoy reading and listening to docu-mental, why not share it?

Share docu-mental: mapping the american states of mind