Monday, January 21, 2013


"Within Normal Limits" was a distinction from medic class a long time ago.  There's no healthy or sick, no right or wrong, no crazy or sane, just stuff that is or isn't within normal limits.  WNL. Joints are a little tight or a little loose, that's WNL.  You can function in society, your psychology is WNL.

More or less.  I've written about this before and been thinking about it much.  Normal limits shift.  They shift with time and society and subculture and circumstances.  My normal limits (and expectation) for appropriate alertness, speech and ability to engage were very different in the jail than at home.  WNL behavior is context dependent.

Obviously.  And one of the things I've written about before, in different words is that most attempts to 'fix' bad guys are not attempts to make them better, but attempts to make them more like the people that judge them.  In other words, to drag them within the boundaries of our normal limits.

Last Tuesday, I got the chance to talk to a small group of people at Walter Reed Medical Center in DC.  Some were clinicians, some patients.  It was good, especially for me.  There are people who have been through certain things and that lets us cut out the bullshit and talk about things instead of around things. Sometimes on the blog I feel like I am ranging fire, trying to find the concept that most people can get as an analogy to some of the things I try to say.  But at best, it can only be an analogy.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is "hypervigilance" the adrenaline-fueled jumpiness that has you living on orange alert.  Is it bad?  Looked at in the context of where it developed it is an important survival trait.  In an environment where people are hunting you, where vest bombers and assassins and snipers will do everything possible to hide their intention, hypervigilance is far more valuable than the complacent zombies you see all over Costco.  Not only are the zombies unaware and helpless, they also aren't really living.  They don't see the snipers but they don't see the sky, either.  They live small and pathetic bubble lives.

People in certain professions have done things and adapted to doing things that others cannot imagine.  In any other endeavor, we would recognize this for what it is-- superiority.  All other things being equal (not that that ever happens) the person who holds the gold record in the 100m dash is superior to the one who doesn't.  The person who speaks three languages is superior to the one who speaks only one.  All other things being equal, being better at math is simply better.

Take a minute and let your little insecurities come out in whimpery growls.  Explain all the reasons why everyone is equal OR why someone who is better than you at everything doesn't mean, on some imaginary spiritual level that you are inferior.  Whatever you need to say so you can sleep at night.

When it comes to violence, though, there is an extra level of weirdness. Our civilization has progressed to the point that some can believe that violence is an aberration.  They can deny that they remain safe only because other people (who can do something they cannot do for themselves) stand ready to oppose those who would use violence.  And so, most are driven to believe that those who can do violence MUST be broken in some way.

The broken/fixed paradigm may get in the way.  Appropriate levels of response vary by situation (and that was one of the Major's goals with this talk was a conscious recalibration of threat assessment.)  I have a hard time saying there is something wrong with mindset X if it gives you an edge surviving situation Y.  The skill of reading the situation and opting between mindsets might be the way to go.

Enough.  I'm rambling.  Just be aware that if you have a superpower, those without will be driven to describe it as a problem.  The question may not be whether something is wrong but where that something fits.


Maija said...

Seems like a much more constructive way to look at things.

Lisa said...

Some of the most superpower-ful people I've met have the most deep seated insecurities; they too readily believe that they're nothing special, that they're not superior. Combine that with all the people and society that doesn't want to let them be so, and hey presto- a fully "equal" world.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Lots of people do want to be "special", until it happens. Also society celebrates the special people on the way up and then likes to find ways to tear them down, because they are special...

Mike Panian said...

Within normal limits or not, the validity of a behavior, like i think you were saying, is more about the awareness or the ability of the person to connect to the world, mindfulness, which is awareness of your own real objectives and about the ability to adapt to circumstances, that is, specifically selecting behaviors that will actually do what the real objective is in the context of the reality of the moment?

Hyper vigilance is neither normal or not. Its an ability. Like jumping. If I jump up and down while I am trying to convince someone to hire me I might be called acting outside of normal limits.

I think its only if a person acts without awareness of the environment, without mindfulness and without responding in a way that is adaptive to what one's senses are telling him that they start to have problems.

So a person acting hyper-vigilant in a situation of danger makes sense and is respected but a person who is hyper-vigilant around 6 year old kids might actually have something to look at.

Regarding the normal spectrum...I think most people actually wrestle with similar but perhaps not as overt and critical issues of awareness, mindfulness, and selection of the appropriate response. Some people have extreme disconnects. You can do better at deciding whats up just looking at the functionality rather than thinking about categories imo.


Jim said...

"Enough. I'm rambling. Just be aware that if you have a superpower, those without will be driven to describe it as a problem. The question may not be whether something is wrong but where that something fits. "

I think this is a very big thing, and that it'll go further than you realize.

I see two broad reactions to standouts: Praise, and condemnation. If you stand out in a way that society likes (artistic talent, beauty, athletic ability) -- you're praised and honored. Your superpower is good. But if you stand out in a way that makes the society you're in uncomfortable (alertness, ugliness, capacity to do nasty jobs) -- it's a problem. You can't like being a garbageman... there's something wrong with you. You can't find the adrenaline boost of running code to a hot call exciting and thrilling... You're supposed to be scared. Do what you had to do in a war time situation -- you're a monster. (And if you don't accept that, society'll send you to a doc that'll convince you.)x

Josh Kruschke said...


You can tear the other down, or build yourself up.

Josh Kruschke said...


There is a concept called the 'Overton Window' & it has to do with perception, but it only really works on those who don't have a strong sense of what you believe. It more of an active willful changing of (societal) norms.

At one point in time slavery was an excepted norm, if everyone/majority decided it was OK again, I would have to decide whether or not to conform, be just an outsider or be an outsider while work for change.

My philosophy boils down to believe or do what ever you want as long as you are not picking my pockets or breaking my legs or those that I care about.

Other peoples morality only matters to me if it effects me, not before or on a maybe.

My 2 cents,