Ecstasy users often describe the high as feeling ‘loved up’ and MDMA is frequently described as an ‘empathogen’ but until now, little was known about how it genuinely affects the recognition of emotions in other people.
A new study just published in Biological Psychiatry has tested the supposed ‘empathy boosting’ effects of MDMA and found that it actually makes people worse at picking up on emotions in the face – but only for threatening expressions.
The researchers, led by psychologist Gillinder Bedi, met the volunteers on three occasions, and on each one they were given either MDMA (‘ecstasy’), placebo, or methamphetamine – the latter to be able to distinguish the effect of feeling ‘wired’ from any ecstasy-specific ‘empathic’ effects.
Although everyone had agreed to which drugs would be given, the study was done using ‘double-blind’ conditions, meaning neither the researchers nor the participants knew which they were getting on any particular occasion.
An hour after swallowing the pill, the volunteers were asked to rate their mood and emotional state with standardised questionnaires and to take part in experiments to assess their ability to pick up on others’ emotions.
Two tests involved picking up emotion from the face, one from just the eyes, one from whole facial expressions, and another required participants to do the same for voices.
The volunteers reported that they felt significantly more ‘loving’, ‘friendly’ and ‘playful’ on MDMA, although paradoxically on a higher dose of the drug, it also increased feelings of loneliness.
Methamphetamine also boosted some of these feelings, although to a lesser extent, suggesting that part of the ‘loved up’ feeling is probably down to similar amphetamine-like effects in both drugs (MDMA is often described as a ‘substituted amphetamine’ because of its similar molecular structure).
Strikingly, the emotion tests showed no improvement in the ability to pick up on emotion after taking MDMA, and in fact, people were worse – but only at picking up on fearful, threatening emotions in facial expressions.
This suggests that ecstasy might be causing some of the famous feeling of ‘social connectedness’ by tuning out negative signals from other people faces, rather than boosting our ability to pick up on positive emotions.
Although only a first study, it indicates that the ‘empathogen’ label is probably misleading because the drug actually makes us worse at reading others’ emotions.
But because we tend to associate ‘empathy’ with positive social interactions, the effects of the drug have been linked to being empathic in popular culture.