What MDMA Taught Me About Human Connection

7 minute read
Nuwer is an award-winning author and freelance science journalist who regularly contributes to the New York Times, Scientific American and National Geographic. Her latest book, I FEEL LOVE: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World, explores the science, history, politics and culture of MDMA.

When I force myself to think back on the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, a few key memories come to mind: Me, endlessly checking the news for the latest frightening updates. The eerily quiet streets of Brooklyn, save for the sirens of speeding ambulances. Nights spent toggling between insomnia and vivid nightmares.

At the core of it, though, I felt profoundly disconnected from the community around me—and to some extent myself. Knowing that so many other people were going through the same thing as me was of little comfort because they felt completely unreachable. Sure, I could hang out with friends on Zoom, but those stilted, pixelated interactions somehow left me feeling even lonelier. We were all prisoners of our own isolation, numb from a lack of genuine human contact and cracking under the weight of worry.

Then, a month or so into lockdown, I had an idea. Why not take a little vacation—a vacation of the sort that wouldn’t require actually leaving the house. Why not, I thought, take some MDMA?

Also known as Molly or Ecstasy, MDMA exploded into American public consciousness in the 1990s when it became the fuel that powered all night raves. National hysteria broke out about MDMA’s impact on users’ health, including erroneous claims that the drug made holes in people’s brains and that it could cause Parkinson’s disease.

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The conversation is much different today. Although MDMA is still a strictly banned Schedule I substance, it also shows promising use as a therapeutic aid in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some evidence also suggests that MDMA, when paired with therapy, can be used to address a host of other mental maladies such as alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and depression.

When you talk to people who have been through MDMA-assisted therapy as part of a clinical trial, or who have sought out the treatment underground, a common theme emerges: connection. Many people say that under the influence of MDMA they feel intensely connected to themselves and to others—sometimes for the first time in their lives.

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I must have somehow intuited this special characteristic of MDMA in the darkness of lockdown. 45 minutes after swallowing my capsule at sunset one Friday evening, and joined by my husband, Paul, and our pandemic pod friend, Ty, I felt a strange sensation: a smile. For what seemed like the first time since the pandemic started, I was genuinely smiling. The ever-present tightness in my chest dissipated as the weight of anxiety lifted, and I began to sway to the infectious disco beats playing through our speakers.

Paul, Ty, and I spent the next several hours dancing like maniacs on the living room carpet, hugging and laughing and belting out lyrics. Near the peak of the experience I had a simple but profound realization: I was not alone at all—none of us were. I began to feel an almost painful sense of compassion and empathy for those whose lives had been lost due COVID-19, and for their loved ones left behind.

“We are all in this together,” I wanted to tell them, “And together, we will get through this.”

Scientists such as evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare at Duke University and cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman at UCLA point to our ability to connect with each other as foundational to all we’ve accomplished as a species—an evolutionarily ordained imperative that is key to our overall survival and success. The social skills that originally allowed us to cooperate and thus to survive and proliferate came with a catch, though: the existence of loneliness, and the depression and anxiety that too much time spent with feelings of isolation can lead to. Just as physical pain evolved to alert us to bodily danger, the mental anguish of loneliness alerts us to the danger of isolation. Our individual happiness and mental health depend on feeling connected to others. As I experienced firsthand that one, fateful evening, MDMA seems to tap into a primal need.

Yet even before the pandemic, those connections were fraying. Political scientist Robert Putnam argued more than two decades ago that social disconnection was becoming a defining feature of contemporary American life. Researchers now point to a number of factors that are at play. People are increasingly living alone, for example, and social media is supplanting genuine connection (especially amongst young people) with friends, family, and neighbors. Concrete is replacing nature, alienating us from the benefits of being in touch with the natural world, and inequality—which is associated with a higher prevalence of loneliness—is also growing. Materialism is on the rise as well, and also contributes. Companies exploit people’s desire for connection by portraying their brands as a means to an end for defining personal identification and values—promises that inevitably fall short and only lead to more self-interested consumption and unhappiness.

There is no single solution to the disconnection that we’ve inadvertently engineered into modern life, but for some people, part of the answer has been MDMA—specifically, by using the drug as an assist for learning and practicing how to be social, and then applying those lessons to sober life. In a 2018 study, for example, a team of researchers led by clinical psychologist Alicia Danforth, then at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, gave 12 autistic adults suffering from social anxiety either MDMA or a placebo and then administered talk therapy aimed at reducing their symptoms. Those participants who received MDMA made significantly greater gains in reducing their social anxiety symptoms, and those gains lasted at least six months. Some participants even credited the study with changing their life. One person joined a soccer club and completed their college degree; another moved out of their parent’s house and got married.

In addition to helping people break free of the shyness, anxiety, and self-doubt, MDMA also seems to promote feelings of goodwill on a larger group scale. In a 2021 study led by cognitive anthropologist Martha Newson at the University of Kent, researchers found that of 481 people who had attended a rave in Britain, those who took MDMA were more likely to report a feeling of connection with fellow humans on the dance floor. Such feelings could contribute to healthier social lives. In a 2023 study led by clinical psychologist Grant Jones at Harvard University, researchers analyzed data from more than 214,500 Americans and found that those who have taken MDMA at least once, compared to those who have not, were less likely to struggle in interactions with strangers; to experience difficulty in social situations; or to be prevented from being social due to a mental health issue. While these associations do not prove direct causality, they do suggest that perhaps some people are reaping social rewards thanks to some lesson they’ve learned while on MDMA.

As more data from scientific studies and real world anecdotes come in, evidence is beginning to emerge that MDMA’s greatest asset, then, may be its ability to grease the rusted wheels of connectivity that are slowing so many of us down, and that may even be hurting us as a species. Of course, the drug alone will not save us from the many woes of living in a world afflicted by social injustices, climate change, war, nationalism, and more. But if it can change some lives for the better, and if that occurs on a broad enough scale, then MDMA could make some real positive difference.

This was certainly the case for me. That night during the pandemic marked a turning point for my mental health. Even after the drug cleared my system, I was left with renewed hope for the future and a sense of connection with everyone going through the shared experience of existing on this earth in this moment. Three years later, I am still able to tap into those feelings when I need them most

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