The scholarly research surrounding psychedelics remains fairly limited. While our understanding of the likes of MDMA and psilocybin has broadened in recent years, academics are still in some ways playing catch-up from the decades in which such drugs were strictly verboten –– even in a scientific setting.
That means that, in an age when policymakers and research institutions are increasingly receptive to the therapeutic and medical value of psychedelic drugs, extraordinary discoveries are always in the offing.
A newly released book explores one potential breakthrough. In “I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World,” the journalist Rachel Nuwer digs deep into the case of a prominent white supremacist who says he was dispelled of his bigoted beliefs after participating in an MDMA study.
The white supremacist, identified by Nuwer only as Brendan, had taken part in a double-blind trial in early 2020 conducted by Harriet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
In an excerpt from Nuwer’s book that was published last week by the BBC, de Wit recounted her astonishment when she and her research assistant, Mike Bremmer, read Brendan’s responses to their questionnaire.
“Strangely, at the very bottom of the form, Brendan had written in bold letters: ‘This experience has helped me sort out a debilitating personal issue. Google my name. I now know what I need to do,’” Nuwer wrote. “Seeing this cryptic message, both Bremmer and de Wit were worried. “We really have to look into this,” de Wit said. They googled Brendan’s name, and up popped a disturbing revelation: until just a couple of months before, Brendan had been the leader of the US Midwest faction of Identity Evropa, a notorious white nationalist group rebranded in 2019 as the American Identity Movement. Two months earlier, activists at Chicago Antifascist Action had exposed Brendan’s identity, and he had lost his job.”
Nuwer wrote that de Wit was “very worried,” but after she dispatched her assistant to speak with Brendan, he discovered that a “murderous spree turned out to be the opposite of what Brendan had in mind.” Brendan told a stunned research assistant that “love is the most important thing” and “nothing matters without love.”
After hearing the story from de Wit, Nuwer said she had to look into Brendan’s story herself.
“MDMA does not seem to be able to magically rid people of prejudice, bigotry, or hate on its own. But some researchers have begun to wonder if it could be an effective tool for pushing people who are already somehow primed to reconsider their ideology toward a new way of seeing things. While MDMA cannot fix societal-level drivers of prejudice and disconnection, on an individual basis it can make a difference. In certain cases, the drug may even be able to help people see through the fog of discrimination and fear that divides so many of us,” Nuwer wrote.
Nuwer describes Brendan’s experience in the double-blind trial in the excerpt, via the BBC:
“When Brendan saw a Facebook ad in early 2020 for some sort of drug trial at the University of Chicago, he decided to apply just to have something to do and to earn a little money. At one of the visits, he was given a pill. He didn’t know it, but he’d just taken 110mg of MDMA. At the time, Brendan was ‘still in the denial stage’ following his identity becoming public, he said. He was racked with regret – not over his bigoted views, which he still held, but over the missteps that had landed him in this predicament. About 30 minutes after taking the pill, he started to feel peculiar. ‘Wait a second – why am I doing this? Why am I thinking this way?’ he began to wonder. ‘Why did I ever think it was okay to jeopardise relationships with just about everyone in my life?’
“Just then, Bremmer came to collect Brendan to start the experiment. Brendan slid into an MRI, and Bremmer started tickling his forearm with a brush and asked him to rate how pleasant it felt. ‘I noticed it was making me happier – the experience of the touch,’ Brendan recalled. ‘I started progressively rating it higher and higher.’ As he relished in the pleasurable feeling, a single, powerful word popped into his mind: connection. It suddenly seemed so obvious: connections with other people were all that mattered. ‘This is stuff you can’t really put into words, but it was so profound,’ Brendan said. ‘I conceived of my relationships with other people not as distinct boundaries with distinct entities, but more as we-are-all-one. I realised I’d been fixated on stuff that doesn’t really matter, and is just so messed up, and that I’d been totally missing the point. I hadn’t been soaking up the joy that life has to offer.’”