[This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by TracingWoodgrains and Michael Pershan (a k-12 math teacher), on advanced students in the education system]
“What do America’s brightest students hear? Every year, across the nation, students who should be moved ahead at their natural pace of learning are told to stay put. Thousands of students are told to lower their expectations, and put their dreams on hold. Whatever they want to do, their teachers say, it can wait.” – A Nation Deceived, p.3
“There is an apparent preference among donors for studying the needs and supporting the welfare of the weak, the vicious, and the incompetent, and a negative disregard of the highly intelligent, leaving them to “shift for themselves.” Hollingworth, 1926
1. Eager to Learn and Underachieving
Pretend you’re a teacher. With 25 students, who gets your attention during class?
There’s the kid who ask for it, whose hand is constantly up. There’s also the quiet kid in the corner who never says a word, but has been lost in math since October, who will fail if you don’t do something. There’s the student in the middle of the pack, flowing along. Finally, there’s the kid who finishes everything quickly. She’s looking around and wondering, what am I supposed to do now?
In a survey of teachers from 2008, just 23% reported that advanced students were a top priority for them, while 63% reported giving struggling students in their classes the most attention. A 2005 study found the same trend in middle schools, where struggling students receive the bulk of instructional modification and special arrangements. This was true even while 73% agreed that advanced students were too often bored and under-challenged in school. While teachers, it seems, are sympathetic to the smart bored kid, that’s just not a priority for them.
This isn’t to blame teachers who are under all sorts of pressure to carry low-performing students over the threshold and who, in any event, are only trying to do what’s best for their kids. Which is the most urgent concern? If you don’t equip a kid with the skills they need, next year’s class might be a disaster for them. Or maybe they’ll fail out of school. And behavior problems? Often those begin with academic struggles. Gifted children, on the other hand — they’re on the way to becoming gifted adults. They can take care of themselves, for a minute, the logic goes. More often than not, the teacher will encourage the early finisher to go read a book, or start homework, or do anything at all while the teacher works to help the quiet, lost kid in the corner.
If the kids are just a little bored, that’s nothing strange. It’s hard to find someone who wasn’t bored in school sometimes. For many top students, already poised for achievement, this turns out just fine. And yet, there are persistent stories of how the lack of challenge can turn into something more serious.
One version of the story goes like this: from a young age, a student finds the work in school easy. It doesn’t take long for them to expect school to be easy for them — it becomes a point of pride. Over years of floating through school, an identity takes hold. Then, one day, maybe after years of schooling, something finally becomes challenging for the student… but there’s nothing nice about this challenge. The challenge is now a threat. The student begins to find school challenging, and their world falls apart. They feel isolated and misunderstood at school. They lash out. They hate it, and they can’t wait to get out.
When we asked Reddit users and blog readers to describe their experience of school, we heard versions of this story:
The stories of student pain and underachievement in school get more intense as we consider cases of extremely precocious children. The pressures on the student increase, and without help a student often experiences isolation from their peers and a whole other host of difficult feelings. Miraca Gross studied students like these in Australia and found that precocious students were often suffering in silence. Speaking particularly about precocious students who underachieve, she writes:
The majority of the extremely gifted young people in my study state frankly that for substantial periods in their school careers they have deliberately concealed their abilities or significantly moderate their scholastic achievement in an attempt to reduce their classmates’ and teachers’ resentment of them. In almost every case, the parents of children retained in the regular classroom with age peers report that the drive to achieve, the delight in intellectual exploration, and the joyful seeking after new knowledge, which characterized their children in the early years, has seriously diminished or disappeared completely. These children display disturbingly low levels of motivation and social self-esteem. They are also more likely to report social rejection by their classmates and state that they frequently underachieve in attempts to gain acceptance by age peers and teachers. Unfortunately, rather than investigating the cause of this, the schools attended by these children have tended to view their decreased motivation, with the attendant drop in academic attainment, as indicators that the child has “leveled out” and is no longer gifted.
What do we make of these stories? How common are such experiences?
From the literature on “gifted underachievement” we get partial confirmation — underachievement is a real phenomenon, supported by numerous case studies. According to a survey of various school practitioners, underachievement is the top concern when it comes to gifted students. By definition, advanced students are only a small percent of each student body, so few are affected in any given place, but on a national scale it becomes a more serious problem.
This is not just a problem for the affluent. It has persistent impacts on Black students, poor students, and students who are learning English, who are less often recommended for gifted programs or special accommodations. Here’s one way this manifests itself: in one study, 44% of poor students identified as gifted in reading in 1st Grade were no longer academically exceptional by 5th Grade. For higher-income families, only 31% of 1st Graders experience this slide.
The lack of attention to this group extends to the research. It’s difficult to pin down the number of students impacted. While underachievement is a real phenomenon, current research doesn’t tell us very much about the factors contributing to gifted underachievement. What studies have been done tend to focus almost entirely on things like whether students with ADHD or unsupportive families underachieve, rather than looking at controllable factors like the sort of teaching students experience in school.
Schools are the institutions in charge of educating kids. Those who rush into school, eager to learn, should not walk out feeling rebuffed and ignored. This is doubly true for talented kids from at-risk populations, who may not have the support structure outside of school to ensure their success if school has no time for them. It’s clear, though, that we cannot degrade the experience of other students to help those who already have an academic leg up. Is there a feasible approach to address this problem without making things worse?
We have good reason to think that personalized attention makes a huge difference to a student’s learning. Research suggests that tutoring that supplements a student’s coursework is a very effective educational intervention. Benjamin Bloom caught people’s attention with the idea of a 2 standard deviation effect in the 1980s. More recent research has lowered that sky-high estimate to more realistic numbers, and a meta-analysis found an effect size of 0.36, still a powerful impact, enough to take a student from the 50th percentile of achievement to the 64th.
If supplemental tutoring works, the dream goes, what if we replaced classroom work entirely with tutoring? Can’t we just do that for gifted underachievers and precocious students? We have tantalizing success stories of this kind in the education for precocious children. In a famous case, John Stuart Mill‘s father decided that the philosophy of utilitarianism needed an advocate, and planned a demanding course for him. Mill didn’t underachieve: he learned Greek at age 3, Latin at age 8, and flourished as a philosopher. László Polgár declared he had discovered the secret of raising “geniuses” and went about showing it by tutoring his daughters in chess from the age of 3. It’s hard to argue with his results: two grandmasters and an international master, one of whom became the 8th ranked chess player in the world and the only woman ever to take a game off the reigning world champion.
Though this sort of tutoring seems like a dream come true for underachieving gifted students, in practice it’s a non-starter in schools. (It lives on in homeschooling, to an extent). In a world where schools are struggling to help every kid learn to read, the ethics of only assigning tutors to gifted students is dubious and almost certainly a political impossibility. The cost of assigning a tutor to every child, meanwhile, would do something special to property taxes. This simple answer, then, can lead to a clearer understanding of the complexity of educational questions: It’s possible to focus on simple practices that work while disregarding nonacademic concerns and political feasibility.
To be useful, educational ideas should be effective, politically feasible, and economical. If tutoring for gifted underachievers isn’t workable, might there be some other way to approximate the benefits of personal, human attention? Here are three of the most common tools that advocates for gifted education propose:
What follows is an evaluation of how promising each of these tools is, both in theory and in practice.
Our favorite one-stop reading on gifted education research: this.
Our favorite one-stop reading on tutoring: this.
2. Ability Grouping (a.k.a Tracking)
The case for placing students of similar abilities together in a classroom seems like it ought to be as simple as the case for tutoring. Teachers will be more effective if their students have similar pacing needs. So, group kids who need more time in one class and those who need less time in another. It’s not tutoring, but it should be the next best thing.
Things in education research are rarely that simple, though.
Bob Slavin, a psychologist who studies education, is one of the most-cited education researchers around. He seems like a compulsively busy fellow. He writes, he runs research centers, he designs programs for schools. (He blogs.) A journalist from The Guardian once asked Slavin for his likes and dislikes, and in case you were wondering he likes work and dislikes complacency.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Slavin performed a series of meta-analyses of the existing literature on tracking and between-class ability grouping. Overall, he found no significant benefits from ability grouping, even for “top track” students across elementary, middle, and high schools.
But the other surprising finding of Slavin’s was that nobody was academically hurt by ability grouping — not even the lowest track students. Slavin argued that when you consider all the non-academic concerns, the scales weigh in favor of detracking, i.e. avoiding ability grouping.
What are those non-academic concerns? In the conclusion of his review of the evidence from elementary schools, he writes:
“Ability grouping plans in all forms are repugnant to many educators, who feel uncomfortable making decisions about elementary-aged students that could have long-term effects on their self-esteem and life chances. In desegregated schools, the possibility that ability grouping may create racially identifiable groups or classes is of great concern.” (p.327)
That’s Slavin’s view. So, where is the debate?
One thing that is decidedly not up for debate in the literature is that Slavin’s non-academic concerns are real. Opponents and defenders of tracking alike agree that low-track classes are often chaotic, poorly taught environments where bad behavior is endemic, and that this is a major problem. Tom Loveless is a contemporary defender of tracking, and writes that “even under the best of conditions, low tracks are difficult classrooms. The low tracks that focus on academics often try to remediate through dull, repetitious seatwork.” Jeannie Oakes made a name for herself by carefully documenting the lousiness of a lot of low track classes.
Some tracked schools seem to have done better with their low tracks. Gamoran, an opponent of tracking, speaks highly of how some Catholic schools handle lower tracks. Gutierrez identifies several tracked schools with strong commitments to helping students across the school advance in mathematics, and concludes that “tracking is not the pivotal policy on which student advancement in mathematics depends.” Making these experiences better is an important goal. These difficult dynamics are a genuine and widespread issue, though, and educators are rightly concerned about them.
Slavin’s concerns about exacerbating racism in schools are relatively uncontroversial as well. It’s not so much that race is a factor in track placement. Using a large nationally representative sample and controlling for prior achievement, Lucas and Gamoran found that race wasn’t a factor in track placement. (Though Dauber et al, found that race was a factor in track placement in Baltimore schools, so maybe sometimes racism is a factor in placement.)
But because of existing achievement gaps between e.g. Black and white students, there’s the potential in a racially mixed school that ability groups will effectively sort Black students into the lowest track and expose them to a lot of dynamics that are difficult to quantitatively measure but frequently discussed in education. A school where being Black is associated with poor performance and misbehavior will, according to many educators and researchers, lead to lower expectations and academic self-esteem for all Black students.
(Good news for people who like bad news: school segregation is getting worse, so the interaction between tracking and race is getting better.)
The main controversy surrounds Slavin’s claims about the academic impact of ability grouping. His meta-analyses were part of an extended back-and-forth with Chen-Lin & James Kulik, who wrote several competing analyses on the ability grouping literature. Slavin and the Kuliks each criticized the other’s methodology, but the core point the Kuliks made was that ability grouping did have positive effects on gifted students as long as curriculum was enhanced or accelerated to match, and that this typically did happen in dedicated gifted and talented programs. The Kuliks pointed out that both they and Slavin largely agreed on the data both analyzed, but that Slavin excluded studies of gifted programs from his research while the Kuliks made those studies a focus.
Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, summarized one important aspect of their dispute, which is that their debate centers more on values than their read of the extant evidence:
Slavin and Kulik are more sharply opposed on the tracking issue than their other points of agreement would imply. Slavin states that he is philosophically opposed to tracking, regarding it as inegalitarian and anti-democratic. Unless schools can demonstrate that tracking helps someone, Slavin reasons, they should quit using it. Kulik’s position is that since tracking benefits high achieving students and harms no one, its abolition would be a mistake (p.17)
Betts notes the studies the Kuliks and Slavin reviewed in their meta-analyses had some flaws, with relatively small N and non–nationally representative data. Using more nationally representative samples, a number of researchers (Hoffer, Gamoran and Mare, <623%3A%3AAID-PAM7>3.0.CO%3B2-J”>Argys, Rees and Brewer) came to the conclusion that conventional tracking benefits students in the high tracks and hurts those in the low tracks. But it’s really hard to control for the right factors in these definitely non-experimental studies, and Betts and Shkolnik raise questions about the results of these papers. And there was also a recent big meta-meta-analysis that found no benefits for between-class grouping, echoing Slavin, but that did find benefits for special grouping for gifted students, echoing the Kuliks.
Just to mess with everybody, Figlio and Page argue that by attracting stronger students to the school (because parents seek tracking) students in low-tracks benefit, secondarily.
So, in summary, what should we make of all this? Betts, an economist, says in a review of the literature that when it comes to the average impact of tracking or the distribution of achievement “this literature does not provide compelling evidence.” Loveless doesn’t disagree, but notes that for high achievers, the situation is clearer:
“The evidence does not support the charge that tracking is inherently harmful, and there is no clear evidence that abandoning tracking for heterogeneously grouped classes would provide a better education for any student. This being said, tracking’s ardent defenders cannot call on a wealth of research to support their position either. The evidence does not support the claim that tracking benefits most students or that heterogeneous grouping depresses achievement. High achieving students are the exception. For them, tracked classes with an accelerated or enriched curriculum are superior to heterogeneously grouped classes.” (p.22)
At the end of the day, all academic impacts of tracking are mediated by teaching and the curriculum. If a teacher doesn’t change what they teach or how they teach it, no grouping decision will help or hurt a student academically in a significant way. Tracking only could benefit gifted students if it came with some sort of curricular modification.
This is a conclusion with wide-reaching support. Even Slavin, who so staunchly opposed conventional ability grouping, was extremely impressed by something called the Joplin Plan, which involves three core features:
Slavin, the Kuliks, and everyone else seemed to agree that students in the plan — at all ability levels — tended to get 2-3 months ahead of students in typical programs over a year of instruction. The Joplin plan involves ability grouping — the good kind of ability grouping.
So in 1986, when the Baltimore School Superintendent turned to Bob Slavin to design a program that would improve the city’s most dysfunctional schools, guess how Slavin grouped students?
Slavin worked with research scientist Nancy Madden (they’re married) to design Success for All for Baltimore, and it’s a prominent program in the school improvement world, implemented in thousands of schools and spreading. Those three features of the Joplin plan — assessment, regrouping along the lines of ability and targeted teaching — are core features of their program.
Success for All isn’t the only example of a successful curriculum implementing these ideas. Direct Instruction was created by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker in the 1960s, and it also groups students according to their current levels in reading and math while frequently reassessing and regrouping. DI has a strong body of research supporting its efficacy (for one, it was the winner of the famous-in-education Follow Through experiment), but fell largely out of favor outside of remedial classrooms. In early 2018, a new meta-analysis spanning 50 years of research reinvigorated conversation around Direct Instruction. It found an average effect size of 0.51 to 0.66 in English and math over 328 studies (p<0.001), — strong evidence that the program works.
While its effect on student performance is rarely disputed, the program remains controversial. Historian of education Jack Schneider writes: “Direct Instruction works, and I’d never send my kids to a school that uses it. The program narrows the aims of education and leaves little room for creativity, spontaneity and play in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost.” Ed Realist worries that its pedagogy is unsavory, has not been shown to work for older students, that wealthier parents are voting with their feet against the curriculum, and that DI could exacerbate gaps between students. Supporters, by contrast, paint the picture of a robust, effective system that has been ignored and disregarded.
Success for All and Direct Instruction are not simple programs for schools to adopt. Implementing them amounts to a major organizational change, and pushes at the extremely resilient notion that children in school should be grouped by their ages. Comprehensive ability grouping programs such as these seem to work, but in practice they are rarely used.
Our favorite one-stop source for reading on ability grouping: here, or maybe here to get a broader picture of the controversy.
Forget the comprehensive approach, then. Does it work to simply move an individual student (e.g. an underchallenged and frustrated student) through the curriculum at whatever pace seems to make sense?
There are a few different ways schools can help some students access the curriculum more quickly. A kid can skip a full grade, or several grades in extreme cases. They can stay in their grade for some classes, but join higher grade levels for some parts of the day. They might be assigned to two classes in one year (e.g. Algebra 1 and Geometry). Or, in some cases, a young student might start school at an even younger age than is typical.
If a child is ready for a higher level within a subject and studies it instead of the lower level, it’s almost a given that they’ll learn more. The real research questions are (a) from an academic standpoint whether accelerated children do tend to be ready, or if they do poorly in classes post-acceleration) and (b) whether acceleration exposes students to non-academic harm (e.g. stress, demotivation, loss of love for subject, poor self-esteem).
The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) is an ongoing longitudinal study examining thousands of mathematically gifted students. In one SMPY study, researchers compared the professional STEM accomplishments of mathematically gifted students who skipped a grade to those who remained at grade level. They found that, controlling for a student’s academic profile in a pretty sophisticated way, students who skipped a grade tended to be ahead of the non-skippers in terms of degrees earned, publications, citations accrued, and patents received. From this work it seems skipping a grade in the SMPY cohort did nothing to hurt a kid’s learning or enthusiasm for their passions.
Acceleration has been one of the focuses of SMPY studies. A 1993 piece about SMPY findings reported “there is no evidence that acceleration harms willing students either academically or psychosocially.” This is supported by various meta-analyses, going back to the 1984 Kulik & Kulik paper and confirmed by more recent work such as a 2011 analysis of existing studies. Beyond the “does no harm” findings, these meta-analyses also report academic benefits to students.
It can be confusing, when reading these studies, to keep track of just how gifted the students happen to be. For example, SMPY has studied five cohorts so far, ranging from students who assessed in the top 3% to those who assessed in the top 0.01%. As we consider students farther away from the mean of achievement, the need for acceleration becomes more acute.
Lots of teachers encounter “1 in 100” students every year, but the education of “off the charts” students is necessarily more a matter of feel than policy. Still, there are success stories to learn from, and they show a remarkable sensitivity to both the academic and social well-being of the student.
Terence Tao is a famous success story of this kind. He surprised his parents by discovering how to read before turning two, and as a child he started climbing through math at a blistering rate. He was identified as profoundly gifted from a young age, and his education was carefully tracked by Miraca Gross as part of her longitudinal study of profoundly gifted children:
His parents investigated a number of local schools, seeking one with a principal who would have the necessary flexibility and open-mindedness to accept Terry within the program structure they had in mind. …
This set the pattern for the ‘integrated,’ multi-grade acceleration program which his parents had envisaged and which was adopted, after much thought and discussion, by the school. By early 1982, when Terry was 6 years 6 months old, he was attending grades 3, 4, 6 and 7 for different subjects. On his way through school, he was able to work and socialize with children at each grade level and, because he was progressing at his own pace in each subject, without formal “grade-skipping,” gaps in his subject knowledge were avoided.“
His education continued in much the same fashion, culminating in a Ph.D. by the age of 21 and a remarkable and balanced life since. He has since given his own advice on gifted education.
Given the success of acceleration, are we accelerating enough? On the one hand, it appears that acceleration is a widely used tool for giving gifted students what they need. When looking at the top 1 in 10000 students in terms of mathematical ability as identified by the SMPY, nearly half of the group skipped grades, and almost all of them had some form of acceleration, whether that meant advanced classes, early college placement, or other tools. About two-thirds reported being satisfied with their acceleration, rating it favorably across many categories:
The dissatisfied third of those 1 in 10000 students, for the most part, reported wishing they had been offered more acceleration. And advocates for gifted education strongly endorse the notion that acceleration is under-used. A Nation Deceived is premised on this idea — though besides for “more” the report doesn’t get specific concerning how many students ought to be accelerated, and the report mostly makes a cultural argument in favor of acceleration, citing stories like Martin Luther King Jr. graduating high school at 15.
We wanted to know more about how educators think about acceleration, so we surveyed (via twitter) twenty-one teachers, academic coaches, tutors and administrators. The survey prompted educators to respond to the following scenario:
In your school there is currently a 1st Grader who does math above grade level, e.g. he performs long division in his head. His parents initiated contact with the teacher after hearing their child complain that math at school was boring. They’re concerned that he isn’t being challenged. The classroom teacher knows that he is above grade-level in math, and is trying to meet his needs in class. The parents, however, do not think the current situation is working. The teacher reports that the student is difficult to engage during math class, and that sometimes he misbehaves during math.
From their responses, it certainly seems that acceleration was on the table, but almost always the last option after a number of in-class or non-classroom options (e.g. after school clubs) were explored. That acceleration in math should be a “break in case of emergency” response is also the line offered by the National Council of Teachers in Math: tracking is morally indefensible, acceleration should be viewed with suspicion but can sometimes be appropriate.
In many ways, mainstream education is living in Bob Slavin’s world. He was a leading opponent of tracking, but was impressed by certain forms of ability grouping. He took the research on ability grouping that actually works (through assessment, frequent regrouping, and curricular modification) and used it to create a program for failing schools. He expresses suspicion about acceleration of gifted students in general, but agrees that at times it is a useful and necessary tool. If you broach the conversation about acceleration with your child’s teachers, you might hear some version of Bob Slavin’s take.
There is more to say about where this skepticism comes from. But it’s important to note that just because a student could be accelerated doesn’t always mean that they should. While some gifted students fit the profile we sketched above — frustrated with school, bored and underchallenged, and finding it hard to connect to peers — many equally capable students are happy in their school lives. (We heard some, but not many, happy stories from online commenters.) If a child is happy and successful without acceleration, they are likely to remain happy and successful regardless of whether they are accelerated, and if they don’t want to accelerate, it should not be forced on them. At least some of the suspicion towards acceleration comes from parents who inappropriately push schools to accelerate their happy, satisfied children.
Acceleration is also not the only option. There is much more to learn than is taught in regular courses. Even in a normal class, a well-designed curriculum or an experienced teacher can create “extensions” to the main activity, so that students who are ready for more have something valuable to engage with. Enhancement or exposure to new, similar topics can serve students as well. A student who has jumped ahead in arithmetic may be entranced by a glance at Pascal’s triangle and number theory. One who is fascinated by English might find similar joy in learning Spanish or Chinese. Both of these, alongside acceleration, follow a simple principle: if a child wants to learn more and is able to do so, let them learn more. Overall, the balance of evidence suggests that acceleration is a practical and resource-effective way to help gifted, underchallenged students flourish in schools.
Our favorite one-stop source for reading on acceleration: here.
4. Educational Goals in Conflict
Through acceleration, tutoring, or ability grouping, some kids could learn more. Why aren’t schools aggressively pursuing that? Shouldn’t they be working to teach kids as much as possible? Isn’t that what a school supposed to do? That educators are skeptical of ability grouping or acceleration can be maddening from the perspective of learning maximization: Why are schools leaving learning on the table?
Here’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough: schools are simply not in the learning-maximization business. It turns out that parents, taxpayers and politicians call on schools to perform many jobs. At times, there are trade-offs between the educational goals schools are asked to pursue, and educators are forced to make tough choices.
Historian David Labaree has one way of thinking about these conflicting educational goals, which he expands on at length in Someone Has to Fail. For Labaree, there are three competing educational goals that are responsible for creating system-wide tensions:
As Labaree tells it, these goals end up in tension all the time. A lot of things that seem like gross ineptitude or organizational dysfunction are really the result of the mutual exclusivity of these goals:
These educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal democracy, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its democracy … We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests. We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the inefficiency of the economy. As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals … The apparent dysfunctional outcomes of the school system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, bad administration, or bad teaching; they are an expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.
Ability grouping and acceleration fit nicely within the tensions Labaree exposes. These learning-maximizing approaches could find support from those who see education as a national investment in our defense or economy. Of course, the strongest demand for acceleration in schools can come from parents, who want schools to give their children every possible opportunity to be upwardly mobile. (“We want to make sure they can go to a good college.”)
Those act as forces in favor of ability grouping and acceleration. But schools also know that they are held responsible for producing equitable outcomes for a citizenry that sees each other as equals. A program that raises achievement for top students without harming others has an appeal an economist could love, but within schools this can count as a problem.
The way this plays out in practice is that many schools are inundated with requests to accelerate a kid. Parents — especially financially well-off, well-connected parents — can typically find ways to apply pressure to schools in hopes of helping their children reach some level of distinction. They’ll sometimes do this even when it wouldn’t benefit a child’s education (it would be educationally inefficient), or when it would exacerbate inequality (by e.g. letting anyone with a rich, pushy parent take Algebra 1 early).
In short, from a school’s standpoint those are two problems with acceleration. First, parents will push for it even when it’s not academically or socially appropriate. Second, it can exacerbate inequalities. That could explain where the culture of skepticism within education comes from.
This is meant entirely in terms of explaining the dynamic. The way this plays out can be incredibly painful. Systems designed to moderate parental demand can keep a kid in a depressing and frustrating situation:
My older son wanted to move up to a more advanced math course for next year. He took two final exams for next year’s course in February and answered all but 1/2 of one question on each. So roughly 90% on both and his request to skip the course was denied. (source)
Districts sometimes have extensive policies that can be incredibly painful to navigate when trying to get a student who truly needs acceleration out of a bad classroom situation. We heard from one educator who had a very young student expressing suicidal ideations. It was all getting exacerbated by the classroom situation — the kid said he felt his teachers and peers hated him because he loved math. The parents and the educator tried to find a better classroom for the child, and were met with all the Labaree-ian layers of resistance. Off the record, the educator advised the parents to get out of dodge and into a local private school that would be more responsive to his needs.
A happy ending: the 4th Grader moved to a private school where he was placed in an 8th Grade Honors class. He likes math class now. He seems happier, he’s growing interested in street art and social justice work.
But without a doubt, there are some unhappy endings out there.
5. Personalization Software
[source: Larry Cuban]
“Ours is an age of science fiction,” Bryan Caplan writes in The Case Against Education. “Almost everyone in rich countries — and about half of the earth’s population — can access machines that answer virtually any question and teach virtually any subject … The Internet provides not just stream-of-consciousness enlightenment, but outstanding formal coursework.”
The dream of using the Internet to replace brick-and-mortar classrooms is a dream that is entirely in sync with the times. This is reflected in the enormous enthusiasm directed towards online learning and personalization software. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg have all invested heavily in personalization and teaching software. And the industry as a whole is flush with funding, raising some 8 billion dollars of venture capital in 2017, while reaching 17.7 billion in revenue.
Finally — a way out of the school system and its knot of compromises! If schools are institutions whose goals are in tension with learning-maximization… then let’s stay away from schools and their tensions and give the children the unfettered learning they want. Let’s create the ideal tutor as a piece of software.
This dream isn’t just in sync with our times — it has a long history. This history is particularly well-documented by historian Larry Cuban (author of Teachers and Machines and Tinkering Toward Utopia) and by Audrey Watters (she’s writing a book about it). Watters’ talk “The History of The Future of Education” is as good a representative as any of the major thesis: that the dream is larger than any particular piece of technology. Motion pictures, radio, television, each of these was at times promoted as an educational innovation, able one day to free students from lockstep movement through school and into a personalized education. From Thomas Edison to B.F. Skinner, tech advocates have long envisioned the future that (at least according to Caplan) we’re living in now.
Then again, tech advocates in the past also thought they were living in the age of personalized learning. In 1965, a classroom that used a program called Individually Prescribed Instruction was described this way:
Each pupil sets his own pace. He is listening to records and completing workbooks. When he has completed a unit of work, he is tested, the test is corrected immediately, and if he gets a grade of 85% or better he moves on. If not, the teacher offers a series of alternative activities to correct the weakness, including individual tutoring.
For comparison, here is the NYTimes in 2017, and the headline is A New Kind of Classroom:
Students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.
The similarity between modern day and historical personalization rhetoric doesn’t settle the matter — in a lot of ways, clearly the Internet is different — but personalization software seems to have arrived at a lot of familiar, very human frustrations.
Anyone who has gone online to learn has, at some point, come face to face with this dilemma: On the internet, you can study almost all human knowledge, but usually you don’t. In a world with virtually every MIT course fully online for free, a world with Khan Academy and Coursera and countless other tools to aid learning, why has the heralded learning revolution not yet arrived?
In a way, the revolution has arrived — it just hasn’t improved things much. Rocketship Schools, a California charter using online learning for about half of its instruction, has had solid results. Lately, though, they’ve moved away from some of their bigger bets on personalization and rediscovered teachers, saying “We’ve seen success with models that get online learning into classrooms where the best teachers are.” School of One was a widely hyped high school model in NYC that was preparing to scale up its offerings… until a fuller picture of the results came in and it was pilloried. Online charter schools, meanwhile, seem to actively depress learning.
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get solid research on the efficacy of various ed tech products. Many tools, particularly those sold directly to schools or used by online charters, are proprietary and stuck behind paywalls, selectively presenting their best data and limited demos. The ed tech sector in general seems to deliver mixed results to students.
Why is it so hard to make effective teaching software?
For one, teaching is complex. A good human teacher does a lot of complicated things — gets to know their students, responds to the class’ moods and needs, asks “just right” questions, monitors progress, clarifies in real time as a look of confusion dawns on the class, etc., etc. — and it’s simply hard to get a computer to do that.
Maybe, theoretically, a piece of software could be designed that does these things. But in practice, many software designers don’t even try. It’s easier and cheaper to make pedagogical compromises, such as providing instruction entirely through videos. Yes, there are some thoughtful tools made by groups like those at Explorable Explanations, such as this lesson on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But building high-quality tools well-adapted for a digital environment is difficult and time-consuming, and for prospective designers, destinations like Google or Blizzard tend to be more glamorous than working with schools. In practice, humans currently have a lot of advantages over computers in teaching.
Even if we overcame all the design issues, though, would students be motivated to stick with the program? Studies of online charters point to student engagement as the core challenge. When you put a kid in front of a computer screen, they jump to game websites, YouTube, SlateStarCodex, Google Images — anything other than their assigned learning. Many educational games that try to fix this resort to the “chocolate covered broccoli” tactic, trying to put gamelike mechanics that have nothing to do with learning around increasingly elaborate worksheets.
To be fair, student engagement is also the core challenge of conventional schools. But that’s precisely what the much-maligned structures of school are attempting to confront. The intensely social environment helps children identify as students and internalize a set of social expectations that are supportive of learning. The law compels school attendance, and schools compel class attendance. .And, once a child is in the classroom, their interactions with actual, live human instructors can set high academic expectations that a child will genuinely strive to meet.
The conventional story is that school is incredibly demotivating, but compared to their online counterparts schools are shockingly good at motivation. MOOCs like those on Coursera have an average completion rate of 15 percent — public schools do much better than this. Popular language app Duolingo’s self-reported numbers from 2013 would put their language completion rate at somewhere around 1%. If all a user has to rely on is their daily whim to continue a course, the most focused and conscientious may succeed, but those are the ones who already do well in schools. That’s a big part of why people lock themselves into multi-year commitments full of careful carrots and sticks to get through the learning process. Writers such as Caplan think that people are revealing their true interests when they skip learning to fart around on the web, but we might as well see a commitment to attend school as equally revealing. People need social institutions to help do things we’d truly like to do. As such, even as computers become better teachers, the motivational advantage of schools seems likely to persist.
How might tech-based learning tools address these factors, so they might stand a chance at holding students’ attention long enough to teach them? Art of Problem Solving, an organization promoting advanced math opportunities to children, makes a good case study. It’s found a balance worth examining. First, it provides accessible gamelike online tools that center on a careful sequence of thought-provoking problems. Second, it offers scheduled online classes with the promise of a fast pace, challenging content, and a peer group of similarly passionate students taught by subject matter experts. The online classes are more expensive offerings, but they preserve the human touch.
What does that balance mean for students? If they’re in the conscientious, self-motivated crowd that wants to learn everything yesterday, they can gorge themselves on software designed to be compelling. No barriers keep them from progressing. Software can always point to a next step, a harder problem. On the other hand, if they want to lock a motivational structure around themselves and keep the social benefits of school in a more challenging setting, they can.
Not every successful tool need look identical, but that core idea is worth repeating: software should enable the passion and self-pacing of eager kids, but should not rely on that to replace the power of social, human motivational structures. Yes, sometimes even the same structures used in “regular” schools.
Online learning, then, fits squarely within the history of attempts to automate teaching. Over and again we make the same mistakes and forget the lessons of history: that teaching is more complex than our machines have ever been, that motivation is largely social, and that schools will have a hard time distinguishing between altrustic designers and opportunistic profit-seekers.
For those in the market for online learning there are a lot of mediocre tools available, and many truly bad ones. Right now, there’s nothing that seems ready to serve as a full-on replacement for school without consistent, careful human guidance.
That said, depending on your passions, there are some excellent resources for learning out there. Especially if a student has a caring mentor or a passionate peer group, they can learn a lot online. As educators and designers create more tools that respect both the power and limitations of machines, that potential can grow. But it’s not quite science fiction.
Our algorithm has determined that you should watch the following two videos: here and here to balance realism and idealism
6. Practical Advice
Education is complex and resists easy generalizations. That said, here are some generalizations.
On navigating school for your child:
For tech designers and users:
And for advocates of educational reform, in general:
One last thing: if you’re an educator or a parent or just somebody who spends time around children, take their feelings seriously, OK? If a kid is miserable, that’s absolutely a problem that has to be solved, no matter what district policy happens to be.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to /u/Reddit4Play from reddit, JohnBuridan from the SSC community, blogger Education Realist, and many others who read drafts and offered ideas along the way.
Van Geiklswijk et al describe supplemental melatonin as “a chronobiotic drug with hypnotic properties”. Using it as a pure hypnotic – a sleeping pill – is like using an AK-47 as a club to bash your enemies’ heads in. It might work, but you’re failing to appreciate the full power and subtlety available to you.
Melatonin is a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland. In a normal circadian cycle, it’s lowest (undetectable, less than 1 pg/ml of blood) around the time you wake up, and stays low throughout the day. Around fifteen hours after waking, your melatonin suddenly shoots up to 10 pg/ml – a process called “dim light melatonin onset”. For the next few hours, melatonin continues to increase, maybe as high as 60 or 70 pg/ml, making you sleepier and sleepier, and presumably at some point you go to bed. Melatonin peaks around 3 AM, then declines until it’s undetectably low again around early morning.
Is this what makes you sleepy? Yes and no. Sleepiness is a combination of the circadian cycle and the so-called “Process S”. This is an unnecessarily sinister-sounding name for the fact that the longer you’ve been awake, the sleepier you’ll be. It seems to be partly regulated by a molecule called adenosine. While you’re awake, the body produces adenosine, which makes you tired; as you sleep, the body clears adenosine away, making you feel well-rested again.
In healthy people these processes work together. Circadian rhythm tells you to feel sleepy at night and awake during the day. Process S tells you to feel awake when you’ve just risen from sleep (naturally the morning), and tired when you haven’t slept in a long time (naturally the night). Both processes agree that you should feel awake during the day and tired at night, so you do.
When these processes disagree for some reason – night shifts, jet lag, drugs, genetics, playing Civilization until 5 AM – the system fails. One process tells you to go to sleep, the other to wake up. You’re never quite awake enough to feel energized, or quite tired enough to get restful sleep. You find yourself lying in bed tossing and turning, or waking up while it’s still dark and not being able to get back to sleep.
Melatonin works on both systems. It has a weak “hypnotic” effect on Process S, making you immediately sleepier when you take it. It also has a stronger “chronobiotic” effect on the circadian rhythm, shifting what time of day your body considers sleep to be a good idea. Effective use of melatonin comes from understanding both these effects and using each where appropriate.
1. Is melatonin an effective hypnotic?
That is, taking melatonin just before you want to get to sleep, does help you get to sleep. The evidence on this is pretty unanimous. For primary insomnia, two meta-analyses – one by Brzezinski in 2005 and another by Ferracioli-Oda in 2013 – both find it safe and effective. For jet lag, a meta-analysis by the usually-skeptical Cochrane Collaboration pronounces melatonin “remarkably effective”. For a wide range of primary and secondary sleep disorders including, Buscemi et al say in their abstract that it doesn’t work, but a quick glance at the study shows it absolutely does and they are incorrectly under-reporting their own results. The Psychiatric Times agrees with me on this: “Results from another study reported as negative actually demonstrated a statistically significant positive result of a decrease in sleep latency by an average of 7.2 minutes for melatonin”.
Expert consensus generally follows the meta-analyses: melatonin works. I find cautious endorsements by the Mayo Clinic and John Hopkins less impressive than its less-than-completely-negative review on Science-Based Medicine, a blog I can usually count on for a hit job on any dietary supplement.
The consensus stresses that melatonin is a very weak hypnotic. The Buscemi meta-analysis cites this as their reason for declaring negative results despite a statistically significant effect – the supplement only made people get to sleep about ten minutes faster. “Ten minutes” sounds pretty pathetic, but we need to think of this in context. Even the strongest sleep medications, like Ambien, only show up in studies as getting you to sleep ten or twenty minutes faster; this New York Times article says that “viewed as a group, [newer sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata] reduced the average time to go to sleep 12.8 minutes compared with fake pills, and increased total sleep time 11.4 minutes.” I don’t know of any statistically-principled comparison between melatonin and Ambien, but the difference is hardly (pun not intended) day and night.
Rather than say “melatonin is crap”, I would argue that all sleeping pills have measurable effects that vastly underperform their subjective effects. The linked article speculates on one reason this might be: people have low awareness around the time they get to sleep, and a lot of people’s perception of whether they’re insomniac or not is more anxiety (or sometimes literally dream) than reality. This is possible, but I also think of this in terms of antidepressant studies, which find similarly weak objective effects despite patients (and doctors) who swear by them and say they changed their lives. If I had to guess, I would say that the studies include an awkward combination of sick and less-sick people and confuse responders and non-responders. Maybe this is special pleading. I don’t know. But if you think any sleeping pill works well, melatonin doesn’t necessarily work much worse than that.
Sleep latency statistics are hard to compare to one another because they’re so dependent on the study population. If your subjects take an hour to fall asleep, perhaps melatonin could shave off thirty-four minutes. But if your subjects take twenty minutes to fall asleep, then no sleeping pill will ever take off thirty-four minutes, and even an amazing sleeping pill might struggle to make fifteen. I cannot directly compare the people who say melatonin gives back ten minutes to the people who say melatonin gives back thirty-four minutes to the people who say Ambien gives back twelve, but my totally unprincipled guess is that melatonin is about a third as strong as Ambien. It also has about a hundred times fewer side effects, so there’s definitely a place for it in sleep medicine.
2. What is the right dose of melatonin?
“But my local drugstore sells 10 mg pills! When I asked if they had anything lower, they looked through their stockroom and were eventually able to find 3 mg pills! And you’re saying the correct dose is a third of a milligram?!”
Yes. Most existing melatonin tablets are around ten to thirty times the correct dose.
Many early studies were done on elderly people, who produce less endogenous melatonin than young people and so are considered especially responsive to the drug. Several lines of evidence determined that 0.3 mg was the best dose for this population. Elderly people given doses around 0.3 mg slept better than those given 3 mg or more and had fewer side effects (Zhdanova et al 2001). A meta-analysis of dose-response relationships concurred, finding a plateau effect around 0.3 mg, with doses after that having no more efficacy, but worse side effects (Brzezinski et al, 2005). And doses around 0.3 mg cause blood melatonin spikes most similar in magnitude and duration to the spikes seen in healthy young people with normal sleep (Vural et al, 2014).
Other studies were done on blind people, who are especially sensitive to melatonin since they lack light cues to entrain their circadian rhythms. This is a little bit of a different indication, since it’s being used more as a chronobiotic than a sleeping pill, but the results were very similar: lower doses worked better than higher doses. For example, in Lewy et al 2002), nightly doses of 0.5 mg worked to get a blind subject sleeping normally at night; doses of 20 mg didn’t. They reasonably conclude that the 20 mg is such a high dose that it stays in their body all day, defeating the point of a hormone whose job is to signal nighttime. Other studies on the blind have generally confirmed that doses of around 0.3 to 0.5 mg are optimal.
There have been disappointingly few studies on sighted young people. One such, Attenburrow et al 1996 finds that 1 mg works but 0.3 mg doesn’t, suggesting these people may need slightly higher doses, but this study is a bit of an outlier. Another Zhdanova study on 25 year olds found both to work equally. And Pires et al studying 22-24 year olds found that 0.3 mg worked better than 1.0. I am less interested in judging the 0.3 mg vs. 1.0 mg debate than in pointing out that both numbers are much lower than the 3 – 10 mg doses found in the melatonin tablets sold in drugstores.
UpToDate, the gold standard research database used by doctors, agrees with these low doses. “We suggest the use of low, physiologic doses (0.1 to 0.5 mg) for insomnia or jet lag (Grade 2B). High-dose preparations raise plasma melatonin concentrations to a supraphysiologic level and alter normal day/night melatonin rhythms.” Mayo Clinic makes a similar recommendation: they recommend 0.5 mg. John Hopkins’ experts almost agree: they say “less is more” but end up chickening out and recommending 1 to 3 mg, which is well above what the studies would suggest.
Based on a bunch of studies that either favor the lower dose or show no difference between doses, plus clear evidence that 0.3 mg produces an effect closest to natural melatonin spikes in healthy people, plus UpToDate usually having the best recommendations, I’m in favor of the 0.3 mg number. I think you could make an argument for anything up to 1 mg. Anything beyond that and you’re definitely too high. Excess melatonin isn’t grossly dangerous, but tends to produce tolerance and might mess up your chronobiology in other ways. Based on anecdotal reports and the implausibility of becoming tolerant to a natural hormone at the dose you naturally have it, I would guess sufficiently low doses are safe and effective long term, but this is just a guess, and most guidelines are cautious in saying anything after three months or so.
3. What are circadian rhythm disorders? How do I use melatonin for them?
Circadian rhythm disorders are when your circadian rhythm doesn’t match the normal cycle where you want to sleep at night and wake up in the morning.
The most popular circadian rhythm disorder is “being a teenager”. Teenagers’ melatonin cycle is naturally shifted later, so that they don’t want to go to bed until midnight or later, and don’t want to wake up until eight or later. This is an obvious mismatch with school starting times, leading to teenagers either not getting enough sleep, or getting their sleep at times their body doesn’t want to be asleep and isn’t able to use it properly. This is why every reputable sleep scientist and relevant scientific body keeps telling the public school system to start later.
When a this kind of late sleep schedule persists into adulthood or becomes too distressing, we call it Delayed Phase Sleep Disorder. People with DSPD don’t get tired until very late, and will naturally sleep late if given the chance. The weak version of this is “being a night owl” or “not being a morning person”. The strong version just looks like insomnia: you go to bed at 11 PM, toss and turn until 2 AM, wake up when your alarm goes off at 7, and complain you “can’t sleep”. But if you can sleep at 2 AM, consistently, regardless of when you wake up, and you would fall asleep as soon as your head hit the pillow if you first got into bed at 2, then this isn’t insomnia – it’s DSPD.
The opposite of this pattern is Advanced Phase Sleep Disorder. This is most common in the elderly, and I remember my grandfather having this. He would get tired around 6 PM, go to bed by 7, wake around 1 or 2 AM, and start his day feeling fresh and alert. But the weak version of this is the person who wakes up at 5 each morning even though their alarm doesn’t go off until 8 and they could really use the extra two hours’ sleep. These people would probably do fine if they just went to bed at 8 or 9, but the demands of work and a social life make them feel like they “ought” to stay up as late as everyone else. So they go to bed at 11, wake up at 5, and complain of “terminal insomnia”.
Finally, there’s Non-24-Hour-Sleep Disorder, where somehow your biological clock ended up deeply and unshakeably convinced that days on Earth are twenty-five (or whatever) hours long, and decides this is the hill it wants to die on. So if you naturally sleep 11 – 7 one night, you’ll naturally sleep 12 – 8 the next night, 1 to 9 the night after that, and so on until either you make a complete 24-hour cycle or (more likely) you get so tired and confused that you stay up 24+ hours and break the cycle. This is most common in blind people, who don’t have the visual cues they need to remind themselves of the 24 hour day, but it happens in a few sighted people also; Eliezer Yudkowsky has written about his struggles with this condition.
Melatonin effectively treats these conditions, but you’ve got to use it right.
The general heuristic is that melatonin drags your sleep time towards the direction of when you take the melatonin.
So if you want to go to sleep (and wake up) earlier, you want to take melatonin early in the day. How early? Van Geijlswijk et al sums up the research as saying it is most effective “5 hours prior to both the traditionally determined [dim light melatonin onset] (circadian time 9)”. If you don’t know your own melatonin cycle, your best bet is to take it 9 hours after you wake up (which is presumably about seven hours before you go to sleep).
What if you want to go to sleep (and wake up) later? Our understanding of the melatonin cycle strongly suggests melatonin taken first thing upon waking up would work for this, but as far as I know this has never been formally investigated. The best I can find is researchers saying that they think it would happen and being confused why no other researcher has investigated this.
And what about non-24-hour sleep disorders? I think the goal in treatment here is to advance your phase each day by taking melatonin at the same time, so that your sleep schedule is more dependent on your own supplemental melatonin than your (screwed up) natural melatonin. I see conflicting advice about how to do this, with some people saying to use melatonin as a hypnotic (ie just before you go to bed) and others saying to use it on a typical phase advance schedule (ie nine hours after waking and seven before sleeping, plausibly about 5 PM). I think this one might be complicated, and a qualified sleep doctor who understands your personal rhythm might be able to tell you which schedule is best for you. Eliezer says the latter regimen had very impressive effects for him (search “Last but not least” here). I’m interested in hearing from the MetaMed researcher who gave him that recommendation on how they knew he needed a phase advance schedule.
Does melatonin used this way cause drowsiness (eg at 5 PM)? I think it might, but probably such a minimal amount compared to the non-sleep-conduciveness of the hour that it doesn’t register.
Melatonin isn’t the only way to advance or delay sleep phase. Here is a handy cheat sheet of research findings and theoretical predictions:
TO TREAT DELAYED PHASE SLEEP DISORDER (ie you go to bed too late and wake up too late, and you want it to be earlier)
– Take melatonin 9 hours after wake and 7 before sleep, eg 5 PM
– Block blue light (eg with blue-blocker sunglasses or f.lux) after sunset
– Expose yourself to bright blue light (sunlight if possible, dawn simulator or light boxes if not) immediately after waking up in the morning
– Get early morning exercise
– Beta-blockers early in the morning (not generally recommended, but if you’re taking beta-blockers, take them in the morning)
TO TREAT ADVANCED PHASE SLEEP DISORDER (ie you go to bed too early and wake up too early, and you want it to be later)
– Take melatonin immediately after waking
– Block blue light (eg with blue-blocker sunglasses or f.lux) early in the morning
– Expose yourself to bright blue light (sunlight if possible, light boxes if not) in the evening.
– Get late evening exercise
– Beta-blockers in the evening (not generally recommended, but if you’re taking beta-blockers, take them in the evening)
These don’t “cure” the condition permanently; your have to keep doing them every day, or your circadian rhythm will snap back to its natural pattern.
What is the correct dose for these indications? Here there is a lot more controversy than the hypnotic dose. Of the nine studies van Geijlswijk describes, seven have doses of 5 mg, which suggests this is something of a standard for this purpose. But the only study to compare different doses directly (Mundey et al 2005) found no difference between a 0.3 and 3.0 mg dose. The Cochrane Review on jet lag, which we’ll see is the same process, similarly finds no difference between 0.5 and 5.0.
Van Geijlswijk makes the important point that if you take 0.3 mg seven hours before bedtime, none of it is going to be remaining in your system at bedtime, so it’s unclear how this even works. But – well, it is pretty unclear how this works. In particular, I don’t think there’s a great well-understood physiological explanation for how taking melatonin early in the day shifts your circadian rhythm seven hours later.
So I think the evidence points to 0.3 mg being a pretty good dose here too, but I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to try taking more.
4. How do I use melatonin for jet lag?
Most studies say to take a dose of 0.3 mg just before (your new time zone’s) bedtime.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems like you should be able to model jet lag as a circadian rhythm disorder. That is, if you move to a time zone that’s five hours earlier, you’re in the exact same position as a teenager whose circadian rhythm is set five hours later than the rest of the world’s. This suggests you should use DSPD protocol of taking melatonin nine hours after waking / five hours before DLMO / seven hours before sleep.
My guess is for most people, their new time zone bedtime is a couple of hours before their old bedtime, so you’re getting most of the effect, plus the hypnotic effect. But I’m not sure. Maybe taking it earlier would work better. But given that the new light schedule is already working in your favor, I think most people find that taking it at bedtime is more than good enough for them.
5. I try to use melatonin for sleep, but it just gives me weird dreams and makes me wake up very early
This is my experience too. When I use melatonin, I find I wake the next morning with a jolt of energy. Although I usually have to grudgingly pull myself out of bed, melatonin makes me wake up bright-eyed, smiling, and ready to face the day ahead of me…
…at 4 AM, invariably. This is why despite my interest in this substance I never take melatonin myself anymore.
There are many people like me. What’s going on with us, and can we find a way to make melatonin work for us?
This bro-science site has an uncited theory. Melatonin is known to suppress cortisol production. And cortisol is inversely correlated with adrenaline. So if you’re naturally very low cortisol, melatonin spikes your adrenaline too high, producing the “wake with a jolt” phenomenon that I and some other people experience. I like the way these people think. They understand individual variability, their model is biologically plausible, and it makes sense. It’s also probably wrong; it has too many steps, and nothing in biology is ever this elegant or sensible.
I think a more parsimonious theory would have to involve circadian rhythm in some way. Even an 0.3 mg dose of melatonin gives your body the absolute maximum amount of melatonin it would ever have during a natural circadian cycle. So suppose I want to go to bed at 11, and take 0.3 mg melatonin. Now my body has a melatonin peak (usually associated with the very middle of the night, like 3 AM) at 11. If it assumes that means it’s really 3 AM, then it might decide to wake up 5 hours later, at what it thinks is 8 AM, but which is actually 4.
I think I have a much weaker circadian rhythm than most people – at least, I take a lot of naps during the day, and fall asleep about equally well whenever. If that’s true, maybe melatonin acts as a superstimulus for me. The normal tendency to wake up feeling refreshed and alert gets exaggerated into a sudden irresistable jolt of awakeness.
I don’t know if this is any closer to the truth than the adrenaline theory, but it at least fits what we know about circadian rhythms. I’m going to try to put some questions about melatonin response on the SSC survey this year, so start trying melatonin now so you can provide useful data.
What about the weird dreams?
From a HuffPo article:
Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a Stanford University professor of sleep medicine, said he doesn’t think melatonin causes vivid dreams on its own. “Who takes melatonin? Someone who’s having trouble sleeping. And once you take anything for your sleep, once you start sleeping more or better, you have what’s called ‘REM rebound,’” he said.
This means your body “catches up” on the sleep phase known as rapid eye movement, which is characterized by high levels of brain-wave activity.
Normal subjects who take melatonin supplements in the controlled setting of a sleep lab do not spend more time dreaming or in REM sleep, Pelayo added. This suggests that there is no inherent property of melatonin that leads to more or weirder dreams.
Okay, but I usually have normal sleep. I take melatonin sometimes because I like experimenting with psychotropic substances. And I still get some really weird dreams. A Slate journalist says he’s been taking melatonin for nine years and still gets crazy dreams.
We know that REM sleep is most common towards the end of sleep in the early morning. And we know that some parts of sleep structure are responsive to melatonin directly. There’s a lot of debate over exactly what melatonin does to REM sleep, but given all the reports of altered dreaming, I think you could pull together a case that it has some role in sleep architecture that promotes or intensifies REM.
6. Does this relate to any other psychiatric conditions?
Probably, but this is all still speculative.
Seasonal affective disorder is the clearest suspect. We know that the seasonal mood changes don’t have anything to do with temperature; they seem to be based entirely on winter having shorter (vs. summer having longer) days.
There’s some evidence that there are two separate kinds of winter depression. In one, the late sunrises train people to a late circadian rhythm and they end up phase-delayed. In the other, the early sunsets train people to an early circadian rhythm and they end up phase-advanced. Plausibly SAD also involves some combination of the two where the circadian rhythm doesn’t know what it’s doing. In either case, this can make sleep non-circadian-rhythm-congruent and so less effective at doing whatever it is sleep does, which causes mood problems.
How does sunrise time affect the average person, who is rarely awake for the sunrise anyway and usually sleeps in a dark room? I think your brain subconsciously “notices” the time of the dawn even if you are asleep. There are some weird pathways leading from the eyes to the nucleus governing circadian rhythm that seem independent of any other kind of vision; these might be keeping tabs on the sunrise if even a little outside light is able to leak into your room. I’m basing this also on the claim that dawn simulators work even if you sleep through them. I don’t know if people get seasonal affective disorder if they sleep in a completely enclosed spot (eg underground) where there’s no conceivable way for them to monitor sunrise times.
Bright light is the standard treatment for SAD for the same reason it’s the standard treatment for any other circadian phase delay, but shouldn’t melatonin work also? Yes, and there are some preliminary studies (paper, article) showing it does. You have to be a bit careful, because some people are phase-delayed and others phase-advanced, and if you use melatonin the wrong way it will make things work. But for the standard phase-delay type of SAD, normal phase advancing melatonin protocol seems to go well with bright light as an additional treatment.
This model also explains the otherwise confusing tendency of some SAD sufferers to get depressed in the summer. The problem isn’t amount of light, it’s circadian rhythm disruption – which summer can do just as well as winter can.
I’m also very suspicious there’s a strong circadian component to depression, based on a few lines of evidence.
First, one of the most classic symptoms of depression is awakening in the very early morning and not being able to get back to sleep. This is confusing for depressed people, who usually think of themselves as very tired and needing to sleep more, but it definitely happens. This fits the profile for a circadian rhythm issue.
Second, agomelatine, a melatonin analogue, is an effective (ish) antidepressant.
Third, for some reason staying awake for 24+ hours is a very effective depression treatment (albeit temporary; you’ll go back to normal after sleeping). This seems to sort of be a way of telling your circadian rhythm “You can’t fire me, I quit”, and there are some complicated sleep deprivation / circadian shift protocols that try to leverage it into a longer-lasting cure. I don’t know anything about this, but it seems pretty interesting.
Fourth, we checked and depressed people definitely have weird circadian rhythms.
Last of all, bipolar has a very strong circadian component. There aren’t a whole lot of lifestyle changes that really work for preventing bipolar mood episodes, but one of the big ones is keeping a steady bed and wake time. Social rhythms therapy, a rare effective psychotherapy for bipolar disorder, revolves around training bipolar people to control their circadian rhythms.
Theories of why circadian rhythms matter so much revolve either around the idea of pro-circadian sleep – that sleep is more restorative and effective when it matches the circadian cycle – or the idea of multiple circadian rhythms, with the body functioning better when all of them are in sync.
7. How can I know what the best melatonin supplement is?
Labdoor has done purity tests on various brands and has ranked them for you. All the ones they highlight are still ten to thirty times the appropriate dose (also, stop calling them things like “Triple Strength!” You don’t want your medications to be too strong!). As usual, I trust NootropicsDepot for things like this – and sure enough their melatonin (available on Amazon) is exactly 0.3 mg. God bless them.
I got Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life for the same reason as the other 210,000 people: to make fun of the lobster thing. Or if not the lobster thing, then the neo-Marxism thing, or the transgender thing, or the thing where the neo-Marxist transgender lobsters want to steal your precious bodily fluids.
But, uh…I’m really embarrassed to say this. And I totally understand if you want to stop reading me after this, or revoke my book-reviewing license, or whatever. But guys, Jordan Peterson is actually good.
The best analogy I can think of is C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a believer in the Old Religion, which at this point has been reduced to cliche. What could be less interesting than hearing that Jesus loves you, or being harangued about sin, or getting promised Heaven, or threatened with Hell? But for some reason, when Lewis writes, the cliches suddenly work. Jesus’ love becomes a palpable force. Sin becomes so revolting you want to take a shower just for having ever engaged in it. When Lewis writes about Heaven you can hear harp music; when he writes about Hell you can smell brimstone. He didn’t make me convert to Christianity, but he made me understand why some people would.
Jordan Peterson is a believer in the New Religion, the one where God is the force for good inside each of us, and all religions are equal paths to wisdom, and the Bible stories are just guides on how to live our lives. This is the only thing even more cliched than the Old Religion. But for some reason, when Peterson writes about it, it works. When he says that God is the force for good inside each of us, you can feel that force pulsing through your veins. When he says the Bible stories are guides to how to live, you feel tempted to change your life goal to fighting Philistines.
The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?
About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.
Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. This isn’t unprecedented – there are always a handful of cult leaders and ideologues making vague promises. But if you join the cult leaders you become a cultist, and if you join the ideologues you become the kind of person Eric Hoffer warned you about. Twelve Rules is something that could, in theory, work for intact human beings. It’s really impressive.
The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.
Cult leaders tell you something new, like “there’s a UFO hidden inside that comet”. Self-help gurus do the same: “All you need to do is get the right amount of medium-chain-triglycerides in your diet”. Ideologues tell you something controversial, like “we should rearrange society”. But prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:
First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.
Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.
Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
This is the General Prophetic Method. It’s easy, it’s old as dirt, and it works.
So how come not everyone can be a prophet? The Bible tells us why people who wouldn’t listen to the Pharisees listened to Jesus: “He spoke as one who had confidence”. You become a prophet by saying things that you would have to either be a prophet or the most pompous windbag in the Universe to say, then looking a little too wild-eyed for anyone to be comfortable calling you the most pompous windbag in the universe. You say the old cliches with such power and gravity that it wouldn’t even make sense for someone who wasn’t a prophet to say them that way.
“He, uh, told us that we should do good, and not do evil, and now he’s looking at us like we should fall to our knees.”
“Weird. Must be a prophet. Better kneel.”
Maybe it’s just that everyone else is such crap at it. Maybe it’s just that the alternatives are mostly either god-hates-fags fundamentalists or more-inclusive-than-thou milquetoasts. Maybe if anyone else was any good at this, it would be easy to recognize Jordan Peterson as what he is – a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.
Twelve Rules is twelve chapters centered around twelve cutesy-sounding rules that are supposed to guide your life. The meat of the chapters never has anything to do with the cutesy-sounding rules. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” is about slaying dragons. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” is about a heart-wrenchingly honest investigation of the Problem of Evil. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” is about neo-Marxist transgender lobsters stealing your precious bodily fluids. All of them turn out to be the General Prophetic Method applied in slightly different ways.
And a lot of them – especially the second – center around Peterson’s idea of Order vs. Chaos. Order is the comfortable habit-filled world of everyday existence, symbolized by the Shire or any of a thousand other Shire-equivalent locations in other fantasies or fairy tales. Chaos is scary things you don’t understand pushing you out of your comfort zone, symbolized by dragons or the Underworld or [approximately 30% of mythological objects, characters, and locations]. Humans are living their best lives when they’re always balanced on the edge of Order and Chaos, converting the Chaos into new Order. Lean too far toward Order, and you get boredom and tyranny and stagnation. Lean too far toward Chaos, and you get utterly discombobulated and have a total breakdown. Balance them correctly, and you’re always encountering new things, grappling with them, and using them to enrich your life and the lives of those you care about.
So far, so cliched – but again, when Peterson says cliches, they work. And at the risk of becoming a cliche myself, I couldn’t help connecting this to the uncertainty-reduction drives we’ve been talking about recently. These run into a pair of paradoxes: if your goal is to minimize prediction error, you should sit quietly in a dark room with earplugs on, doing nothing. But if your goal is to minimize model uncertainty, you should be infinitely curious, spending your entire life having crazier and crazier experiences in a way that doesn’t match the behavior of real humans. Peterson’s claim – that our goal is to balance these two – seems more true to life, albeit not as mathematically grounded as any of the actual neuroscience theories. But it would be really interesting if one day we could determine that this universal overused metaphor actually reflects something important about the structure of our brains.
Failing to balance these (Peterson continues) retards our growth as people. If we lack courage, we might stick with Order, refusing to believe anything that would disrupt our cozy view of life, and letting our problems gradually grow larger and larger. This is the person who sticks with a job they hate because they fear the unknown of starting a new career, or the political ideologue who tries to fit everything into one bucket so he doesn’t have to admit he was wrong. Or we might fall into Chaos, always being too timid to make a choice, “keeping our options open” in a way that makes us never become anyone at all.
This is where Peterson is at his most Lewisian. Lewis believes that Hell is a choice. On the literal level, it’s a choice not to accept God. But on a more metaphorical level, it’s a choice to avoid facing a difficult reality by ensconcing yourself in narratives of victimhood and pride. You start with some problem – maybe your career is stuck. You could try to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to improve – but that would require an admission of failure and a difficult commitment. You could change companies or change fields until you found a position that better suited your talents – but that would require a difficult leap into the unknown. So instead you complain to yourself about your sucky boss, who is too dull and self-absorbed to realize how much potential you have. You think “I’m too good for this company anyway”. You think “Why would I want to go into a better job, that’s just the rat race, good thing I’m not the sort of scumbag who’s obsessed with financial success.” When your friends and family members try to point out that you’re getting really bitter and sabotaging your own prospects, you dismiss them as tools of the corrupt system. Finally you reach the point where you hate everybody – and also, if someone handed you a promotion on a silver platter, you would knock it aside just to spite them.
…except a thousand times more subtle than this, and reaching into every corner of life, and so omnipresent that avoiding it may be the key life skill. Maybe I’m not good at explaining it; read The Great Divorce (online copy, my review).
Part of me feels guilty about all the Lewis comparisons. One reason is that maybe Peterson isn’t that much like Lewis. Maybe they’re just the two representatives I’m really familiar with from the vast humanistic self-cultivation tradition. Is Peterson really more like Lewis than he is like, let’s say, Marcus Aurelius? I’m not sure, except insofar as Lewis and Peterson are both moderns and so more immediately-readable than Meditations.
Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.
But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.
You can almost believe that there really is this Science-Of-How-To-Live-Well, separate from all the other sciences, barely-communicable by normal means but expressible through art and prophecy. And that this connects with the question on everyone’s lips, the one about how we find a meaning for ourselves beyond just consumerism and casual sex.
But the other reason I feel guilty about the Lewis comparison is that C.S. Lewis would probably have hated Jordan Peterson.
Lewis has his demon character Screwtape tell a fellow demon:
Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man [for Hell], and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours — and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.
I’m not confident in my interpretation of either Lewis or Peterson, but I think Lewis would think Peterson does this. He makes the world an end and faith a means. His Heaven is a metaphorical Heaven. If you sort yourself out and trust in metaphorical God, you can live a wholesome self-respecting life, make your parents proud, and make the world a better place. Even though Peterson claims “nobody is really an atheist” and mentions Jesus about three times per page, I think C.S. Lewis would consider him every bit as atheist as Richard Dawkins, and the worst sort of false prophet.
That forces the question – how does Peterson ground his system? If you’re not doing all this difficult self-cultivation work because there’s an objective morality handed down from on high, why is it so important? “C’mon, we both know good and evil exist” takes you pretty far, but it might not entirely bridge the Abyss on its own. You come of age, you become a man (offer valid for boys only, otherwise the neo-Marxist lobsters will get our bodily fluids), you act as a pillar of your community, you balance order and chaos – why is this so much better than the other person who smokes pot their whole life?
On one level, Peterson knocks this one out of the park:
I [was] tormented by the fact of the Cold War. It obsessed me. It gave me nightmares. It drove me into the desert, into the long night of the human soul. I could not understand how it had come to pass that the world’s two great factions aimed mutual assured destruction at each other. Was one system just as arbitrary and corrupt as the other? Was it a mere matter of opinion? Were all value structures merely the clothing of power?
Was everyone crazy?
Just exactly what happened in the twentieth century, anyway? How was it that so many tens of millions had to die, sacrificed to the new dogmas and ideologies? How was it that we discovered something worse, much worse, than the aristocracy and corrupt religious beliefs that communism and fascism sought so rationally to supplant? No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descartes, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing— anything— I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it […]
What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dunegon, I grasped what it means to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.
It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency— your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.
Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. To place the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering at the pinnacle of your hierarchy of value is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.
I think he’s saying – suffering is bad. This is so obvious as to require no justification. If you want to be the sort of person who doesn’t cause suffering, you need to be strong. If you want to be the sort of person who can fight back against it, you need to be even stronger. To strengthen yourself, you’ll need to deploy useful concepts like “God”, “faith”, and “Heaven”. Then you can dive into the whole Western tradition of self-cultivation which will help you take it from there. This is a better philosophical system-grounding than I expect from a random psychology-professor-turned-prophet.
But on another level, something about it seems a bit off. Taken literally, wouldn’t this turn you into a negative utilitarian? (I’m not fixated on the “negative” part, maybe Peterson would admit positive utility into his calculus). One person donating a few hundred bucks to the Against Malaria Foundation will prevent suffering more effectively than a hundred people cleaning their rooms and becoming slightly psychologically stronger. I think Peterson is very against utilitarianism, but I’m not really sure why.
Also, later he goes on and says that suffering is an important part of life, and that attempting to banish suffering will destroy your ability to be a complete human. I think he’s still kind of working along a consequentialist framework, where if you banish suffering now by hiding your head in the sand, you won’t become stronger and you won’t be ready for some other worse form of suffering you can’t banish. But if you ask him “Is it okay to banish suffering if you’re pretty sure it won’t cause more problems down the line?” I cannot possibly imagine him responding with anything except beautifully crafted prose on the importance of suffering in the forging of the human spirit or something. I worry he’s pretending to ground his system in “against suffering” when it suits him, but going back to “vague traditionalist platitudes” once we stop bothering him about the grounding question.
In a widely-followed debate with Sam Harris, Peterson defended a pragmatic notion of Truth: things are True if they help in this project of sorting yourself out and becoming a better person. So God is True, the Bible is True, etc. This awkwardly jars with book-Peterson’s obsessive demand that people tell the truth at all times, which seems to use a definition of Truth which is more reality-focused. If Truth is what helps societies survive and people become better, can’t a devoted Communist say that believing the slogans of the Party will help society and make you a better person?
Peterson has a bad habit of saying he supports pragmatism when he really supports very specific values for their own sake. This is hardly the worst habit to have, but it means all of his supposed pragmatic justifications don’t actually justify the things he says, and a lot of his system is left hanging.
I said before that thinking of Peterson as a philosopher was missing the point. Am I missing the point here? Surely some lapses in philosophical groundwork are excusable if he’s trying to add meaning to the lives of millions of disillusioned young people.
But that’s exactly the problem. I worry Peterson wakes up in the morning and thinks “How can I help add meaning to people’s lives?” and then he says really meaningful-sounding stuff, and then people think their lives are meaningful. But at some point, things actually have to mean a specific other thing. They can’t just mean meaning. “Mean” is a transitive verb. It needs some direct object.
Peterson has a paper on how he defines “meaning”, but it’s not super comprehensible. I think it boils down to his “creating order out of chaos” thing again. But unless you use a purely mathematical definition of “order” where you comb through random bit streams and make them more compressible, that’s not enough. Somebody who strove to kill all blue-eyed people would be acting against entropy, in a sense, but if they felt their life was meaningful it would at best be a sort of artificial wireheaded meaning. What is it that makes you wake up in the morning and reduce a specific patch of chaos into a specific kind of order?
What about the most classic case of someone seeking meaning – the person who wants meaning for their suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Peterson talks about this question a lot, but his answers are partial and unsatisfying. Why do bad things happen to good people? “If you work really hard on cultivating yourself, you can have fewer bad things happen to you.” Granted, but why do bad things happen to good people? “If you tried to ignore all bad things and shelter yourself from them, you would be weak and contemptible.” Sure, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Suffering makes us stronger, and then we can use that strength to help others.” But, on the broader scale, why do bad things happen to good people? “The mindset that demands no bad thing ever happen will inevitably lead to totalitarianism.” Okay, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Uh, look, a neo-Marxist transgender lobster! Quick, catch it before it gets away!”
C.S. Lewis sort of has an answer: it’s all part of a mysterious divine plan. And atheists also sort of have an answer: it’s the random sputtering of a purposeless universe. What about Peterson?
I think – and I’m really uncertain here – that he doesn’t think of meaning this way. He thinks of meaning as some function mapping goals (which you already have) to motivation (which you need). Part of you already wants to be successful and happy and virtuous, but you’re not currently doing any of those things. If you understand your role in the great cosmic drama, which is as a hero-figure transforming chaos into order, then you’ll do the things you know are right, be at one with yourself, and be happier, more productive, and less susceptible to totalitarianism.
If that’s what you’re going for, then that’s what you’re going for. But a lot of the great Western intellectuals Peterson idolizes spent their lives grappling with the fact that you can’t do exactly the thing Peterson is trying to do. Peterson has no answer to them except to turn the inspiringness up to 11. A commenter writes:
I think Nietzsche was right – you can’t just take God out of the narrative and pretend the whole moral metastructure still holds. It doesn’t. JP himself somehow manages to say Nietzsche was right, lament the collapse, then proceed to try to salvage the situation with a metaphorical fluff God.
So despite the similarities between Peterson and C.S. Lewis, if the great man himself were to read Twelve Rules, I think he would say – in some kind of impeccably polite Christian English gentleman way – fuck that shit.
Peterson works as a clinical psychologist. Many of the examples in the book come from his patients; a lot of the things he thinks about comes from their stories. Much of what I think I got from this book was psychotherapy advice; I would have killed to have Peterson as a teacher during residency.
C.S. Lewis might have hated Peterson, but we already know he loathed Freud. Yet Peterson does interesting work connecting the Lewisian idea of the person trapped in their victimization and pride narratives to Freud’s idea of the defense mechanism. In both cases, somebody who can’t tolerate reality diverts their emotions into a protective psychic self-defense system; in both cases, the defense system outlives its usefulness and leads to further problems down the line. Noticing the similarity helped me understand both Freud and Lewis better, and helped me push through Freud’s scientific veneer and Lewis’ Christian veneer to find the ordinary everyday concept underneath both. I notice I wrote about this several years ago in my review of The Great Divorce, but I guess I forgot. Peterson reminded me, and it’s worth being reminded of.
But Peterson is not really a Freudian. Like many great therapists, he’s a minimalist. He discusses his philosophy of therapy in the context of a particularly difficult client, writing:
Miss S knew nothing about herself. She knew nothing about other individuals. She knew nothing about the world. She was a movie played out of focus. And she was desperately waiting for a story about herself to make it all make sense.
If you add some sugar to cold water, and stir it, the sugar will dissolve. If you heat up that water, you can dissolve more. If you heat the water to boiling, you an add a lot more sugar and get that to dissolve too. Then, if you take that boiling sugar water, and slowly cool it, and don’t bump it or jar it, you can trick it (I don’t know how else to phrase this) into holding a lot more dissolved sugar than it would have if it had remained cool all along. That’s called a super-saturated solution. If you drop a single crystal of sugar into that super-saturated solution, all the excess sugar will suddenly and dramatically crystallize. It’s as if it were crying out for order.
That was my client. People like her are the reason that the many forms of psychotherapy currently practised all work. People can be so confused that their psyches will be ordered and their lives improved by the adoption of any reasonably orderly system of interpretation.
This is the bringing together of the disparate elements of their lives in a disciplined manner – any disciplined manner. So, if you have come apart at the seams (or you have never been together at all) you can restructure your life on Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Rogerian, or behavioral principles. At least then you make sense. At least then you’re coherent. At least then you might be good for something, if not yet good for everything.
I have to admit, I read the therapy parts of this book with a little more desperation than might be considered proper. Psychotherapy is really hard, maybe impossible. Your patient comes in, says their twelve-year old kid just died in some tragic accident. Didn’t even get to say good-bye. They’re past their childbearing age now, so they’ll never have any more children. And then they ask you for help. What do you say? “It’s not as bad as all that”? But it’s exactly as bad as all that. All you’ve got are cliches. “Give yourself time to grieve”. “You know that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy”. “At some point you have to move on with your life”.
Jordan Peterson’s superpower is saying cliches and having them sound meaningful. There are times – like when I have a desperate and grieving patient in front of me – that I would give almost anything for this talent. “You know that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy.” “Oh my God, you’re right! I’m wasting my life grieving when I could be helping others and making her proud of me, let me go out and do this right now!” If only.
So how does Jordan Peterson, the only person in the world who can say our social truisms and get a genuine reaction with them, do psychotherapy?
He mostly just listens:
The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think…True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener at the same time. It involves conflict. So you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts – even your perceptions of the world…Thinking is emotionally painful and physiologically demanding, more so than anything else – exept not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all this thinking occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent […]
The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains through conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: it takes a village to build a mind.
A client of mine might say, “I hate my wife”. It’s out there, once sdaid. It’s hanging in the air. It has emerged from the underworld, materialized from chaos, and manifested itself. It is perceptible and concrete and no longer easily ignored. It’s become real. The speaker has even startled himself. He sees the same thing reflected in my eyes. He notes that, and continues on the road to sanity. “Hold it,” he says. “Back up That’s too harsh. Sometimes I hate my wife. I hate her when she won’t tell me what she wants. My mom did that all the time, too. It drove Dad crazy. It drove all of us crazy, to tell you the truth. It even drove Mom crazy! She was a nice person, but she was very resentful. Well, at least my wife isn’t as bad as my mother. Not at all. Wait! I guess my wife is atually pretty good at telling me what she wants, but I get really bothered when she doesn’t, because Mom tortured us all half to death being a martyr. That really affected me. Maybe I overreact now when it happens even a bit. Hey! I’m acting just like Dad did when Mom upset him! That isn’t me. That doesn’t have anthing to do with my wife! I better let her know.” I observe from all this that my client had failed previously to properly distinguish his wife from his mother. And I see that he was possessed, unconsciously, by the spirit of his father. He sees all of that too. Now he is a bit more differentiated, a bit less of an uncarved block, a bit less hidden in the fog. He has sewed up a small tear in the fabric of his culture. He says “That was a good session, Dr. Peterson.” I nod.
This is what all the textbooks say too. But it was helpful hearing Jordan Peterson say it. Everybody – at least every therapist, but probably every human being – has this desperate desire to do something to help the people in front of them who are in pain, right now. And you always think – if I were just a deeper, more eloquent person, I could say something that would solve this right now. Part of the therapeutic skillset is realizing that this isn’t true, and that you’ll do more harm than good if you try. But you still feel inadequate. And so learning that Jordan Peterson, who in his off-hours injects pharmaceutical-grade meaning into thousands of disillusioned young people – learning that even he doesn’t have much he can do except listen and try to help people organize their narrative – is really calming and helpful.
And it makes me even more convinced that he’s good. Not just a good psychotherapist, but a good person. To be able to create narratives like Peterson does – but also to lay that talent aside because someone else needs to create their own without your interference – is a heck of a sacrifice.
I am not sure if Jordan Peterson is trying to found a religion. If he is, I’m not interested. I think if he had gotten to me at age 15, when I was young and miserable and confused about everything, I would be cleaning my room and calling people “bucko” and worshiping giant gold lobster idols just like all the other teens. But now I’m older, I’ve got my identity a little more screwed down, and I’ve long-since departed the burned-over district of the soul for the Utah of respectability-within-a-mature-cult.
But if Peterson forms a religion, I think it will be a force for good. Or if not, it will be one of those religions that at least started off with a good message before later generations perverted the original teachings and ruined everything. I see the r/jordanpeterson subreddit is already two-thirds culture wars, so they’re off to a good start. Why can’t we stick to the purity of the original teachings, with their giant gold lobster idols?