MDMA against white supremacy.

BBC reports on a simple pharmaceutical study at the University of Chicago – about the mechanism by which MDMA increased “the pleasantness of social touch” – that had one unexpected outcome. The controlled drug, used clinically against PTSD in veterans (and illegally for, let’s say, a wide variety of purposes), also seemed to trigger a life-changing wave of empathy in a former white supremacist leader:

Strangely, at the very bottom of the form, Brendan had written in bold letters: “This experience has helped me sort out a debilitating personal issue. Google my name. I now know what I need to do.”

Seeing this cryptic message, both [research assistant Mike] Bremmer and [psychiatry professor Harriet] de Wit were worried. “We really have to look into this,” de Wit said. They googled Brendan’s name, and up popped a disturbing revelation: until just a couple of months before, Brendan had been the leader of the US Midwest faction of Identity Evropa, a notorious white nationalist group rebranded in 2019 as the American Identity Movement. Two months earlier, activists at Chicago Antifascist Action had exposed Brendan’s identity, and he had lost his job.

At one of the visits, he was given a pill. He didn’t know it, but he’d just taken 110mg of MDMA. At the time, Brendan was “still in the denial stage” following his identity becoming public, he said. He was racked with regret – not over his bigoted views, which he still held, but over the missteps that had landed him in this predicament.

About 30 minutes after taking the pill, he started to feel peculiar. “Wait a second – why am I doing this? Why am I thinking this way?” he began to wonder. “Why did I ever think it was okay to jeopardise relationships with just about everyone in my life?”

Just then, Bremmer came to collect Brendan to start the experiment. Brendan slid into an MRI, and Bremmer started tickling his forearm with a brush and asked him to rate how pleasant it felt. “I noticed it was making me happier – the experience of the touch,” Brendan recalled. “I started progressively rating it higher and higher.” As he relished in the pleasurable feeling, a single, powerful word popped into his mind: connection.

It suddenly seemed so obvious: connections with other people were all that mattered. “This is stuff you can’t really put into words, but it was so profound,” Brendan said. “I conceived of my relationships with other people not as distinct boundaries with distinct entities, but more as we-are-all-one. I realised I’d been fixated on stuff that doesn’t really matter, and is just so messed up, and that I’d been totally missing the point. I hadn’t been soaking up the joy that life has to offer.”

Rare as they might be, stories such as these are worth examining for the implications they give about MDMA’s potential ability to “influence a person’s values and priorities”, as de Wit and several co-authors wrote in a case study they published about Brendan in 2021 in the journal Biological Psychiatry. If “extremist views [are] fueled by fear, anger and cognitive biases”, the researchers posed, “might these be targets of pharmacological intervention”?

Encouraging stories of seemingly spontaneous change appear to be exceptions to the norm, however, and from a neurological point of view, this makes sense. Research shows that oxytocin – one of the key hormones that MDMA triggers neurons to release – drives a “tend and defend” response across the animal kingdom. The same oxytocin that causes a mother bear to nurture her newborn, for example, also fuels her rage when she perceives a threat to her cub. In people, oxytocin likewise strengthens caregiving tendencies toward liked members of a person’s in-group and strangers perceived to belong to the same group, but it increases hostility toward individuals from disliked groups.

According to research published this week in Nature by Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Gül Dölen, MDMA and other psychedelics – including psilocybin, LSD, ketamine and ibogaine – work therapeutically by reopening a critical period in the brain. Critical periods are finite windows of impressionability that typically occur in childhood, when our brains are more malleable and primed to learn new things. But Dölen and her colleagues’ findings likewise indicate that, without the proper set and setting, MDMA and other psychedelics probably do not reopen critical periods, which means they will not have a spontaneous, revelatory effect for ridding someone of bigoted beliefs.

Anecdotally, some members of the Taliban, for example, use MDMA to channel a connection to the divine during prayer chants, according to a drug activist based in Kabul who I interviewed for my book. In the West, plenty of members of right-wing authoritarian political movements, including neo-Nazi groups, also have track records of taking MDMA and other psychedelics. This suggests, researchers write, that psychedelics are nonspecific, “politically pluripotent” amplifiers of whatever is going on in somebody’s head, with no particular directional leaning “on the axes of conservatism-liberalism or authoritarianism-egalitarianism.”

That said, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that the human capacity for compassion, kindness, empathy, gratitude, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation are core features of our natures.

You can read Dölen’s research here, in Nature, and De Wit’s research here, in Biological Psychiatry.

[via Mr. Clarry.]