Not raving but drowning - could MDMA help therapy?

Love, hate and Ecstasy.


“Studies show that when you first fall in love, serotonin levels plummet and the brain's reward centres are flooded with dopamine. This gives a high similar to an addictive drug, creating powerful links in our minds between pleasure and the object of our affection, and meaning we crave the hit of our beloved again and again.”

It’s been a while since I last fell in love. However, reading that passage from a New Scientist feature did remind me of how some people can feel after taking MDMA. Perhaps the best word to describe it is infatuation. Like a lovesick teenager, they grab every chance they get to talk about it. Like Romeo mooning over Rosaline, they wonder almost obsessively when they might get back together with it again. No one else can see as clearly as they can just how wonderful it is.

Given that the comedown from MDMA is so fast, and any obvious physiological symptoms are gone within a few days, the feeling can last a surprisingly long time – a few weeks. Then they begin to get that sheepish sense that they had perhaps been behaving a little foolishly, that their friends had tolerated their obsession but were glad they’d finally stopped blathering on about it whenever the subject – or any obliquely related subject – came up.

At least most people don’t immortalise the infatuation by releasing an album. It wouldn’t be surprising if Madonna had had an encounter with MDMA sometime recently. Called your new album MDNA? Made a crass, thinly-veiled, teenagerish, wide-eyed (ha!) reference to the drug on stage at an electronic music festival? It’s suggestive, isn’t it? Remember Tom Cruise’s embarrassing infatuation dance for Katie Holmes on Oprah’s couch? There are similarities, it would seem.

Next week we’ll be able to hear about the experiences of people who have recently taken a Home Office-grade dose of E. The experimental subjects in Channel 4’s Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial will almost certainly tell us they had a wonderful, blissful experience. But that’s not quite a detached analysis: in all probability they will still be a little bit in love with the drug.

And there’s the rub. Almost everything we hear about Ecstasy is anecdotal and subjective. Your experience of Ecstasy, if you’ve taken it, will no doubt be different to the way other people describe theirs, because there are subtle differences between your brain chemistry and everyone else’s, and you took the drug in a different environmental and emotional context.

Channel 4’s show is important because it will highlight the fact that we need to get away from anecdotes about Ecstasy, whether positive or negative. There are plenty of lovers; there are also those whose experience has caused them to harbour hatred towards MDMA. Neither side’s experience provides a good basis for deciding how to move forward.

The objective fact is, we have reason to believe that therapy involving MDMA use can help people get over life-destroying trauma. The study highlighted on Drugs Live involves imaging the brain in an fMRI scanner: early evidence from these scans suggests that the brain on E finds memories of negative experiences much easier to explore. But we don’t have nearly enough data to say for sure, and as things stand, further evidence is very difficult to gather.

Researching with MDMA requires handing over thousands of pounds to the Home Office for a license, a year-long wait for said license, finding the funds for a high security storage facility and a willingness to be subjected to random police inspections. Unsurprisingly, very few researchers are willing to jump through those hoops. And who can blame them when no doctor stands a chance of getting a license to use MDMA in therapy anyway?

People who would benefit from this therapy are not raving, but drowning. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to throw them a lifeline.

Almost everything we hear about Ecstasy is anecdotal and subjective. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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On Tinder pictures, and why we’re all using historical artefacts to get laid

Or: why do so many people think a “smiling next to art about genocide” picture is a good idea?

The sexual frustration in the Natural History Museum this evening is palpable. I’m at one of the “lates” events, where the museum stays open after hours and you’re allowed get drunk with the fossils. There’s a very post-watershed atmosphere and a lingering sense that the main hall diplodocus, now free from hordes of school kids, is going to unleash a string of obscenities.

“This is Tinder pic central,” says a friend, before handing me her phone and asking me to get a shot of her next to a model of a gargantuan extinct bird. It soon occurs to me that nearly everyone here is in their twenties and, almost neurotically, insisting on being photographed next to stuff. I have little doubt that the majority of these pictures will make their way onto dating profiles within the hour.

The hum – and it really is a hum – of people trying to make themselves seem both sexy and well rounded, by pouting next to taxidermy, grows louder and louder.

In all fairness, places like the Natural History Museum have “meet cute” written all over them.

“Our eyes met over a stuffed sloth and the rest is history. Natural history!” I imagine someone utterly unbearable saying.

Now that the meet cute has been digitised, most of the world’s places of interest have been turned into mating props.

“Look how fun and cultured I am,” insists a photo – a Tinder classic – of a woman beaming like a psycho outside the Louvre.

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin, believe it or not, is another favourite. I think a “smiling next to art about genocide” picture is supposed to say, “Ah, Berlin. Great city. Yeah, I go from time to time. No! I’m not cool. I’m actually a complete dork.”

What it actually says is, “I have never read a whole chapter of a book.”

Seriously though, there is nothing more gutting for the vaguely socially aware Tinder user than scrolling through a hot person’s pictures, only to discover a “YAY HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL #YOLO” one. Using historical artefacts to get laid: slightly crass but we all do it. Genocide peacocking: here be a human toilet.

Then there are the more innocuous (almost too innocuous…) Platform 9¾-type Tinder pics. Ones taken at the novelty Harry Potter-themed section of King’s Cross as an ostentatious display of whimsy. Enforced quirkiness has become such an intrinsic part of dating apps that I could easily believe, without it, the entire multi-billion dollar industry would crumble like a pissed-on pavlova. A good number of dating profiles need to appear like Manic Pixie Dream Girl job applications, or the human race will wither. Or something.

“Do you want a picture next to the massive sloth?” my friend asks, presumably wanting to return the favour for the extremely flattering “next to a big bird” photo.

“I don’t know,” I say.

And I don’t. I don’t know what to do with my face while standing next to an animal skeleton. I don’t know where to put my arms. Why, when I’m being photographed, do my arms feel like pool noodles? I wasn’t made for this “pictures next to everything to further your sex life” world. I start to panic. Do I need more pictures of myself next to things? What if I just don’t look good next to things? I so rarely have chemistry with things I stand next to, and it shows. To be honest, I’m starting to resent things in general.

“Just get a picture of me alone and grimacing,” I want to say, “no props, just full, horrible disclosure.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.