Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How did Jordan B. Peterson become radicalized?

Until October 2016, Jordan B. Peterson was a little-known psychology professor. Then, a few videos in which he championed “politically incorrect” ideas went viral – and he shot up to unforeseen fame and fortune. The content of his doubt-proof pronouncements on everything has subsequently attracted much attention. There may be, however, a more revealing take on his transformation into a celebrity reactionary (for the liberal intelligentsia) and motivation speaker (among angry, mostly white young men). It’s an angle that places style on par with substance.
Back in the 1990s, before he moved to the University of Toronto, Prof. Peterson already had a cult following among Harvard students. At that point, though, he was a different person. He had unbounded intellectual ambition and felt a degree of dissociation from the predominant ideological paradigm. At the same time, he struggled with mood swings and spoke in a toned-down, unexcited manner. For two decades, it was more of the same – until in July 2016 his daughter convinced him to try a low-carb, “ketogenic” diet. She believed that regimen could help him (the way it had helped her) overcome a host of health problems: an unspecified autoimmune disease, insomnia, clinical depression, chronic fatigue, GERD, obesity, and a few others.

The very low-card diet did more than that. Dr. Peterson’s health problems subsided rapidly. He lost much weight and felt energized as never before. In parallel, his mind seemed to clear, and he acquired his trademark qualities as a public speaker – combative intensity, furious conviction in proffering simple solutions to complex problems, and thinly veiled contempt for ideological opponents (though, of course, he claims he is unfailingly self-critical). Within a few months, he was ready to relaunch his life, and his career as an “educator.”

Were the resolution of Dr. Peterson’s health problems and the his more extreme ideological persona only accidentally concurrent? Perhaps – but there is another curious possibility. The ketogenic diet is known to boost sensitivity to dopamine and to other excitatory chemicals in the brain (generally decreased by modern feeding and lifestyle patterns). The usual effect is a sense of euphoria and increased confidence and motivation – an overall chronic high of sorts. In individuals with a more sensitive nervous system, this can literally turn into mania – an enduringly altered state of consciousness, as described by neuropsychiatrist Peter Whybrow (American Mania) and psychologist Fred Previc (The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History).

So here is an impish thought. Maybe in some contexts psychological stress and sensory deprivation can help turn some prisoners (including young women) into jihadists hankering for martyrdom. And in a different setting, similar influences can help transform a frustrated academic into a righteous social injustice warrior and virtual cult leader. Over the past couple of years, I have written several papers exploring the link between neurophysiological functioning and social thinking. Dr. Peterson’s personal transformation might be a telling case study.

Come to think of it, I should maybe try a similarly restricted diet (minus the meat) – and observe any mental/emotional changes it fosters. I just hope I won’t suffer some of the unfortunate side effects. And these could go beyond the potential radicalization. For example, Dr. Peterson seems to have lost the capacity to really laugh - a deficit he shares with President Trump…