Ecstasy may bring the love by filtering the fear

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.
 

Link to PubMed entry for study.
Link to DOI entry for study.

8 Comments

  1. Andy Forceno
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    I predict more or less the same effect will be found for the serotonergic hallucinogens, despite having no chemical similarity to the amphetamines, as similar empathogenic effects have been reported anecdotally.

    Yet another great post. Thanks!

  2. non3
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    @Andy, there are a LOT of amphetamine-type serotonergic hallucinogens:

    http://www.erowid.org/library/books_online/pihkal/pihkal.shtml

    The most probable one to fit your definition would be 2CB – read it up at the website above if you’re interested.

    • Andy Forceno
      Posted January 24, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      @non3

      Thanks, I’m familiar with pihkal. My post was referring to the tryptamines (i.e. the ones in tihkal). Of course, there are some very potent serotonergic amphetamine-like compounds such as DOI (which is commonly used in psychopharm research as a potent serotonin ligand).

  3. Posted December 17, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    This is interesting as I am empathic and have no need, or support, for using these types of substances to ‘increase empathy’ and in fact stay away from them because empathy is a valuable survival skill (for me). Meth users are notoriously paranoid as well; something to do, in my opinion, with the neurological effect of meth, as the body signals that cognitive functioning is becoming impaired. I have always held that speed like drugs kill off empathy and the ability to form correct psychological/social connections. From an inside out view, this is because someone who has used too much meth or ‘E’ empathically feels to me cold and disconnected.

  4. Michael
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Interesting in the context of this, which also showed up in the news today: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/health/Brain-spot-where-fear-resides-found/articleshow/7116854.cms

  5. Posted December 17, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Why woud you expect that someone on MDMA would be better at perceiving emotions? Recognizing an emotion in someone else and feeling it internally are far different things.

  6. Mark Temporis
    Posted December 23, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I had been a longtime user of methamphetamine when I visited a friend in SoCal who took me to my first rave.

    His Ecstacy experience was pretty bog-standard. Mine was a feeling of unusual anger–much moreso than I would get using ice.

    I think the MDMA amplified the feelings of strangeness and discomfort I normally have in crowds.

  7. Nimzo
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Is it just me? Or is the study missing the point about empathy all together…. I’ve taken MDMA many times in the past (90′s) and the feeling of love and connectedness was without question the main effect of the drug… I’ve taken it alone, and then Yes.. I felt lonely, but that’s cause I wanted to be with people whilst on the drug. I’ve had deep conversations with other people whilst on MDMA together, and talked openly to other people on the drug cause we felt connected and we trusted each other… The study show’s that facial expressions are harder to read, that’s general empathy… MDMA is far deeper than that… It’s an emphatic realisation that were all human, and were not separate… were together.. one… Thanks.
    Oh… No way you’d get me undergoing a test like this… Methamphetamine is a very damaging drug, (addiction) like double blind testing with Heroin.


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