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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Humans of New York isn’t journalism, but it helps us get beyond the headlines

The creator fo the street photography projecthas turned his attention to the human stories behind the migrant crisis. 

More than 59 million people around the world are currently displaced as a result of conflict and crisis. More than 500,000 of these refugees – the majority of them escaping the deadly civil war in Syria – have fled to Europe over the past several months. These are staggering numbers, and as with any large-scale human crisis, one key challenge is to comprehend the human suffering behind them.

Over the past two weeks, New York photographer Brandon Stanton – best known for his project Humans of New York (HONY) – has documented the human stories behind the migrant crisis, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Through HONY, Stanton has catalogued the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, using photographs and short interviews with his subjects. The project is hugely popular across social media, including Facebook (15.5m likes), Instagram (3.9m followers) and Twitter (356,000 followers), and his book documenting the project became a New York Times bestseller. On September 29, he announced that he would be sharing stories from refugees who are making their way across Europe. He said:

These migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis’, there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.

Since then, the site has shared the stories of government clerks from Baghdad, Nepalese engineers, Afghani interpreters and Syrian waiters who left everything behind and embarked on treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys to reach safety. But the question remains: how much can readers learn about a complex, global, political issue like mass migration from a handful of stories about individual people?

Pulling on the heartstrings

The project quite deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of its audiences in its attempt to generate empathy for the refugees. One typical post, featuring a photograph of a crying woman, tells the story of how she lost her husband at sea after their boat capsized: “The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me.”

Another post, featuring a photograph of a father and his daughter, is particularly touching:

Because of its distinctive style and approach, the site has not been immune to ridicule and criticism. Countless parody accounts have sprung up. These include Millennials of New York, which attempts to offer stories that are “a little less inspirational”; Felines of New York, Lizard People of New York, Pigeons of Boston and Goats of Bangladesh – to mention just a few.

But HONY also has more serious critics to reckon with. Some suggest that Stanton's stories are mere caricatures, which oversimplify and sentimentalise what are often very complex stories, and seek to emotionally manipulate audiences through clickbaiting. Debates rage over whether it can be seen as a form of journalism and, if not, how we should understand the project.

Critics may be right that Humans of New York is not journalism as we know it. After all, it shies away from claims to objectivity and is explicit about its moral aim to humanise the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathise with the suffering of distant others. The project takes place in partnership with the UN, and therefore more appropriately belongs safely in the category of humanitarian advocacy through storytelling.

Time-honoured traditions

Yet HONY borrows from long-standing journalistic and documentary practices. For example, the British social documentary movement, which started in the 1930s, was premised on the importance of telling the stories of “ordinary” people to counter the dominance of elite and upper-class in the media.

My own research on the role of emotion in journalistic story-telling demonstrates that the most highly regarded journalism – Pulitzer Prize winning reports – draw extensively on emotive and personal story-telling as a means of illustrating what are often very complex and abstract issues, ranging from the fate of the New Jersey fishing industry to breakthroughs in the use of DNA technology for medical treatments.

This is precisely because it is only through such personal stories that we can step into the shoes of others – whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Humans of New York may be sentimental, simplistic and saccharine to some, but it also represents a major achievement. Using time-honoured journalistic techniques, it has shown its audience that the personal and private stories of refugees represent a shared political reality, which we ignore at our peril.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor; Director of Research Development and Environment, School of Journalism, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation