The Jordan Peterson nerve
You may have first heard of the Vagus nerve from the infamous breathing coach turned self-help junkie Wim Hof. Hof has become an iconic figure in the personal development world over the past 5 or 6 years. He is best known for cold immersion therapy to help calm the central nervous system, as well as thousand-year-old deep breathing techniques. Hof has turned on an entire generation to deep breathing and bathing in cold water. And while living in Thailand at a yoga retreat we were lucky enough to have an official Wim Hof instructor teach us some cold immersion techniques, I was doing about 35-45 minutes per day at that time in the ice bath.
Wim Hof started his healing technique after his wife committed suicide, leaving him alone to raise the children. He found comfort in the cold waters of the Netherlands and scientists eventually studied him after he accomplished some ridiculous feats like climbing Mt. Everest in shorts, running across deserts with no water, and swimming for long periods of time underneath ice.
But what happens when these things become trendy? First by Hof, and then by other more sinister figures who are trying to deal with their own pain and trauma but don’t have the humility or good intentions those like Hof do, figures like Jordan Peterson for example. Hof had Peterson on his podcast recently. The two talked about fear and those deep breathing techniques that get into the vagus nerve. Peterson, an individual who fantasizes about beating 2-year-old children at playgrounds and whose writing exists somewhere in between The Secret and The Bell Curve has inspired a generation of young folks to place social Darwinism above all else. Around 2016 Peterson was given the label ‘alt-right despite most of his ideas actually deriving from the Bible. In 2016 during a total braindead phase of my life, I went to a Jordan Peterson debate as I found the guy interesting. For more than 90 minutes he fumbled awkwardly arguing passages out of the bible, most of the audience who I assume were Peterson fans were half asleep.
Peterson loves archetypes, so I am using him as one for this piece. He is often seen dunking on cable news hosts who generally read teleprompters and run stories about squirrels on jet skis. But when backed into a corner facing someone with a moderately high IQ, Peterson’s fight or flight mechanism becomes clearer than any performer I have seen in my life. He desperately reaches for a Dostoyevski quote while his jaw locks, his eyes bulge, his brow furrows, his voice increases, and he appears to be on the verge of a panic attack, or physically assaulting someone. Here is an excerpt from his book 12 Rules To Life where he fantasizes about abusing a child, more on how childhood trauma affects adults in the PTSD section below,
I remember taking my daughter to the playground once when she was about two. She was playing on the monkey bars, hanging in mid-air. A particularly provocative little monster of about the same age was standing above her on the same bar she was gripping. I watched him move towards her. Our eyes locked. He slowly and deliberately stepped on her hands, with increasing force, over and over, as he stared me down. He knew exactly what he was doing. Up yours, Daddy-O — that was his philosophy. He had already concluded that adults were contemptible, and that he could safely defy them. (Too bad, then, that he was destined to become one.) That was the hopeless future his parents had saddled him with. To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field.
I have also read several of Peterson’s book recommendations, as I said earlier, I have gone through some weird phases in my life. One book that stood out to me was ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, a book Peterson talks about endlessly. He says it’s great for reducing your victim mindset as it tells the story of how Frankl survived Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps essentially through mindpower. Once you passed the physical test and were deemed of good enough physical strength to work, survival became a mental game. This kind of mentality is a great tool for Peterson to use to bend his own thoughts and beliefs around the power of the individual. Despite Peterson ironically disliking Ayn Rand for her lack of character depth (agreed), Peterson applies many of the same aspects of objectivism into his work.
Peterson himself has had a well-documented issue with addiction, ie benzos where he travelled to the country he talks most about in his lectures – Russia, to meet some kind of Rasputin-like figure. He was on his death bed, and since rising from that he still lacks any kind of humility. In Peter Levine’s book ‘Healing Trauma’ Levine talks about arousal cycles, we get stuck in these uncompleted cycles and find unhealthy ways to try and complete them. A woman may stay with an abusive man because deep down she is trying to fix her father, for example. In real-time it looks crazy to everyone else, but the inner journey is her trying to mend some kind of wound. This is the essence of Jordan Peterson, and talking to Wim Hof about breaking through fear is only for the purposes of becoming higher on the dominance hierarchy.
The Polyvagal Theory
In 1994 Dr. Stephen Porgous wrote a book titled ‘The Polyvagal Theory’ where describes a lot of what Hof talks about with regard to the Vagus nerve. Vagal and Vagus are referring to the same structure. Hof – while lacking a Ph.D. isn’t wrong in his approach, his is just more simplified.
According to Porges, the polyvagal theory describes an autonomic nervous system that is influenced by the central nervous system, sensitive to afferent influences, characterized by an adaptive reactivity dependent on the phylogeny of the neural circuits, and interactive with source nuclei in the brainstem regulating the striated muscles of the face and head. The theory is dependent on accumulated knowledge describing the phylogenetic transitions in the vertebrate autonomic nervous system. Its specific focus is on the phylogenetic shift between reptiles and mammals that resulted in specific changes to the vagal pathways regulating the heart.
Porges’ theory is partly what Wim Hof teaches, but when it’s used by pick-up artists and the Jordan Peterson’s of the world, again, we come back to this idea of Social Darwinism – ie, healing so we can be better than the next guy. This puts several people, including my former self into a narcissistic self-development (keyword is self) tailspin where healing doesn’t happen for compassionate purposes, but rather for selfish ones. I highly recommend listening to Dr. Porges talk for just a brief minute, do you feel your blood pressure drop? Is there a calming effect? I believe there is, and it has less to do with the timber of his voice, but more to do with his knowledge of the subject. When PUA’s or Peterson-like figures talk about it there’s an opposite effect, to me at least. Increased blood pressure, increased tension, raise the voice, dominate those around you with your newly found superpower, as healing trauma is a kind of a superpower, or can feel that way to those who do finally recover from their symptoms.
After years of pickup lines, routines, and peacocking techniques, many of the pickup artist (PUA) communities are turning toward trauma healing. Real Social Dynamics (RSD) – one of the biggest male PUA companies has made about half of their content about trauma healing over the last couple of years. They release $700 USD programs directed at men who are dogshit at talking to women, they say that healing the trauma will make you naturally more attractive because you aren’t carrying around that negative energy. I think it actually makes sense, and in previous cringe phases of my life, I followed those guys. But, for $700 USD someone could go through some intensive 1 on 1 therapy with a licensed trauma therapist that would probably be a lot more beneficial and powerful.
PTSD is almost always the result of trauma. Trauma is the foundation on which maladaptive behaviors are formed. I recently wrote about The Ace Score, a study done in the 1990s that correlated the amount of trauma someone experiences before the age of 18 with things like domestic abuse, drug addiction, self-harm, and suicide in adulthood.
For many with PTSD, their trauma is so engrained within their nervous system that traditional talk therapy alone is often not that effective. The problem is, trauma isn’t logic-based, and someone experiencing it likely knows it isn’t rational, but they can’t help it. Trauma coats itself in the central nervous system and brings up what is commonly known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. This is the ‘lizard brain’ Wim Hof talks about. In order to access that people need to get into the body, and figure out what is happening under the hood. And while it’s great that people like Wim Hof and these pickup artists are introducing trauma healing to a society that desperately needs it, the work goes a lot deeper than a $700 course. Even in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the psychotherapy aspect is crucial. Giving someone with PTSD some LSD and sending them alone into the forest may bring back some positive results, but it’s the integration with a professional that can truly unlock the changes needed to move past those maladaptive behaviors. The psychedelics can provide a ‘window of tolerance’ where the individual can finally become comfortable enough to deal with these things that are likely running their life on a subconscious level. PTSD is one of the main target ailments within the psychedelics space, and for good reason.