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.

Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.