Dr M Aamer Sarfraz We are all different and capable of surprising others by doing something that reveals a quirk of character from time to time. If we ever meet, you might notice me making a pout, while I fall into contemplation. Although this gives a gentle reminder to all my fans that I could easily be the male-counterpart of Marilyn Monroe, others, like my partner, find it completely reprehensible. I also have a habit of drifting off at inappropriate tangents in a monotone during conversations and while dictating letters, which can have a sedative effect on some listeners, but arouse aggressive tendencies in others, including my personal assistant. I have often been described as an obsessive when it comes to my pens; these are scattered all around the house even in not-so-strategic places such as the bathrooms. I must confess that I used to take cold morning showers even in winter and, also refused to eat some fruits and most vegetables in my adolescent years. Some societies are fertile ground for eccentricity. In Punjab, where I come from, it is not uncommonly in evidence. Most middle-aged men politely, but emphatically ask for and drink a glass of water before they will start sipping their tea. The people over there generally believe that all natural foods have inherent qualities of being 'hot or 'cold and take regular precautions by either abstaining from those at certain times of the year or eating other foods to neutralise these preconceived innate effects. Inexplicably, young and fairly fit men suddenly start playing badminton in the weeks leading up to their marriages. Most elderly gentlemen produce a repeated pseudo-cough, while being in the toilet for reasons entirely known only to themselves. And you are not a true son of the soil, if you do not add meaningless words starting with sh to perfectly formed nouns, while speaking Punjabi: roti (shoti), film (shilum), pani (shani). Regal Chowk in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) was full of crackpots during my childhood. Any given evening you might just turn up and have your fair share of the antics of these strange characters. You could choose to pay a few rupees and in return punch Mr Krritch in his face as hard as you like; it remains a mystery as to why no permanent damage was caused to his face as a result of these repeated assaults. Mr Sabri was another character, who used to 'lock horns and wrestle with anyone of the famous wandering-cows of the eight bazaars and always came out on top. Then there was this exclusive Tea House for smokers; its owner played gramophone records only if you presented your demand in writing and on the back of an empty cigarette pack. Dr Fayyaz, a general practitioner, had a remedy for every known and unknown illness under the sun. He once advised a patient: Statistically, one out of every four Lyallpuries is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends; if they are okay, then it is you. Odd, you might think, but as far as eccentric behaviour goes, all the above is so mild that it would barely register. There is no doubt that we all know odd behaviour when we see it; chances are that some of those who are reading these lines may also be oddballs. Some say that modern society has now got the better of individuality and the future of human nature will be a deficiency of personal choices, impulses and preferences. But how would you classify Lal Bihari, a farmer in India who fought the Indian government bureaucracy for 18 years to prove that he is alive? What about Albert Einstein whose eccentricities included picking up discarded cigarette butts off the street in order to circumvent his doctor's ban on buying tobacco for his pipe, piloting his sailboat on windless days, and lecturing his eight-year-old nephew on physics? Indeed, thinkers like John Stuart Mill believed already 140 years ago that the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained - that so few now dare to be odd, is the chief danger of our time. Eccentricity is also believed to be associated with great wealth. The question is: Why would the signs of madness in a poor person be accepted as eccentric behaviours among the rich? Great Britain, where I live now, is quietly proud of leading the world in producing a number of well known oddballs. Sir George Sitwell hung a notice on the gate of his manor in Derbyshire, I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night. The Earl of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, became famous for the unusual dinner parties he threw for dogs. All of the invited dogs were dressed and even shod in the finest fashions of the day. Another oddity was his manner of measuring time. Egerton would wear a pair of shoes only once. When he was done with them, he would line them up in rows in order to count the passing days. The farmer Jemmy Hirst rode a bull around the countryside chasing foxes. He was so famous a character in his time that mad King George III summoned him to tea. When he received the invitation, Hirst declined while stating that he was training an otter to fish. It was a French poet, Grard de Nerval, who took his lobster for walks on a lead like a dog. But he was entirely outshone by his English contemporary Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose pet wombat slept in a tureen on the table at dinner, while his llama walked between the guests. The Monster Raoving Loony Party regularly takes part in the British elections and seems to have some following. Oddity is often associated with genius, and eccentric behaviour may be perceived as an outward expression of intelligence or creative impulse. These loons are usually unconcerned by society's disapproval of their habits or beliefs. Many of history's most brilliant minds have displayed consistently unusual behaviours and habits. But how far could we go in allowing such behaviours to be considered within normalcy? For example, the naturalist Reverend William Buckland famously attempted to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. Realising that it was one of the few things he had not eaten, the Reverend is said to have gobbled down the preserved heart of King Louis XIV. What about Sir Isaac Newton, who once stuck a large needle into his eye socket and twiddled it around, just to find out how it would feel? Did you know that when Lord Byron was ordered to send his dog back home due to Cambridge University rules, he kept, instead a pet bear because it was not expressly forbidden in the statutes? When asked by the administration what purpose the bear served on campus, the poet tried in vain to get his beast a 'Fellowship of his college. Not long ago, we used to praise men who toiled in science laboratories for hours at a time; left home quietly to search for new worlds over years on end; or fought tirelessly and laid down their lives for the causes they believed in. Try attempting any of these adventures nowadays and you would be divorced immediately, find yourself locked up in a mental health facility, or get picked up by the Americans for being a terrorist. On the other hand, you may find young men hand in hand with their partners aimlessly window shopping in the shopping centres and high streets of Western countries for hours and hours each weekend and nobody raises an eyebrow. You may even choose to walk around almost naked, regardless of the weather, anywhere in the West - but if you try and cover yourself too much, you are a misfit and can come in conflict with 'the way of life in the society. By now, we are pretty well able to surmise that eccentrics and oddballs are not a homogeneous group. Some have atypical taste in clothes, while others have odd habits; some enjoy strange hobbies, while others pursue apparently unachievable goals with great vigour. They may have a pedantic and precise manner of speaking intermingled with inventive wordplay that sets them apart; or have a capacity to see problems from new and unexpected angles; and others may conjure innovative solutions for conundrums. Eccentrics may even be visionaries and science in particular has a history of having an unfairly large share of premier-league oddballs. It is suggested that, like the occasional mutations that drive evolution, such characters provide some unusual ideas that have the potential to galvanise human societies into making progress. I am not including those individuals in this list who manufacture oddities consciously in an attempt to establish a sense of unique identity because our society has assigned positive stereotypes to the 'celebrity status. Most of these last, along with their antics, can simply be dismissed as exhibiting attention-seeking behaviours. Behavioural oddities have often been associated with psychiatric disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (manifested in repetitive thoughts and compulsive acts), Aspergers syndrome (abnormal reciprocal social interactions and stereotyped interests or activities) and some personality disorders (e.g., schizotypal and histrionic personality disorders). Many individuals previously considered to be merely eccentric have been retrospectively diagnosed as suffering from psychiatric disorders. Nonetheless, you will be surprised to know that there is little research into this seemingly weird world of loonies. It may be because such characters are cheerful souls, who rarely seek treatment or cause sufficient nuisance to the society to become medicalised. Therefore, assuming all odd behaviour to be a gateway or a step short of developing a serious mental illness would be wrong. The limited research conducted so far informs us that these individuals not only suffer less stress, depression and addiction disorders, but also visit doctors 20 times less than the general population. The explanation, perhaps, lies in their innate lack of struggle to conform, which leads to reduced stress. Consequently, they are happier and their immune systems work more efficiently. They also live longer than the rest of us. However, the bad news is that only about one person in every 5,000 is a born eccentric and most are easily earmarked for this status in their childhood. If you are not one of those, the good news is that many more of us have eccentric tendencies and these become more pronounced with age. There are five reported characteristics of eccentric personalities: Non-conformity of attitude, creativity, curiosity, idealism, and obsession with a hobby. If you are the proud recipient of these characteristics, celebrate and enjoy them because the world is your oyster. If people out there do not approve of you, it is their problem not yours. The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and Sen research fellow in London.