NEWS12 March 2019

‘Unthinkable’ author Helen Thomson: There’s no such thing as a normal brain

Impact 2019 News People Trends UK

UK – Everybody should question their perception of the world, whether in their working lives or the everyday, according to the science journalist and author Helen Thomson.


Speaking during her keynote talk at MRS Impact 2019, Thomson (pictured) said that her research of and interviews with those with “extraordinary” brains has led her to believe that we must question and compare our own mental landscapes with those of others.

Thomson, whose book ‘Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains’ catalogues ten case studies from across the world.

“How often do we question our perception of the world? How often do we compare your mental landscape with that of the person next to you? Very rarely do we put our hands up when something does seem strange – but it is so important that you do.

“Think about what your client or audience might want. They might be seeing a different picture, different colours to those that you see. We can’t jump into someone else’s brain and know what they are experiencing but we know that it is probably different to what you are. One thing is for sure: when describing your brain ‘normal’ probably shouldn’t be the word you should use.”

Thomson, whose work has appeared in the New Scientist,, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal, illustrated her point with examples taken from her book. Tommy, who grew up in a large Irish family in Liverpool, was a “wrong ‘un”.

One day he suffered two massive strokes and overnight his personality changed. He was kind, full of ideas and would paint for up to 20 hours a day. Thomson said: “His daughter said it was as if a stranger had woken up with her father’s memories.”

Another was Joel, who “had the most peculiar brain of all”.  He suffers from mirror-touch disorder, an extreme form of empathy which means that he feels all the pain and emotions of those he comes into contact with. Despite – or because of this – he became a doctor, and believes this oddity makes him better at his job.

These acute examples are relevant to us all, Thomson said: “All had an extreme version of a trait or behaviour we all have. We all sit on a continuum, whether that’s great memory or navigation. We all have an aspect of these ‘strange’ people.”

About a fifth of people have synesthesia, or a crossing of the senses; around five per cent of all populations hallucinate. Statistically, one person in the Impact 2019 conference room would have had no imagination – unable to see how others can bring to mind images.

“Let’s not just marvel at how extraordinary the brain is for other people but remember how different your own perceptions of the world might be," she urged.  “Your own brain isn’t as normal as you’d like to think.”