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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.