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Tomorrow's world

Treating extremists with MDMA

The music video for Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (2012) by Tame Impala

In February 2020, says Rachel Nuwer in BBC Future, psychiatry professor Harriet de Wit was running an experiment into whether MDMA increased the “pleasantness” of touch. Part way through, she received a scrawled note from one participant, Brendan: “This experience has helped me sort out a debilitating personal issue. Google my name. I now know what I need to do.” She looked him up, found out that he had recently been unmasked as the leader of a white-supremacy group, and immediately worried he was about to pick up an “automatic rifle”. The reality couldn’t have been more different. MDMA had in fact made Brendan realise, as he told one research assistant, that “nothing matters without love”.

Since then, the 31-year-old has had years of therapy, meditation and equity training to help him “disconnect” from his former views. “I’d been fixated on stuff that doesn’t really matter, and is just so messed up,” he says. “I hadn’t been soaking up the joy that life has to offer.” While no one’s claiming ecstasy can somehow “cure” racist beliefs, there’s growing evidence that the drug is an “effective tool” for pushing people to reconsider their ideology. New research suggests it may re-open the brain’s “critical period” – the time in childhood when the organ is particularly malleable to new beliefs – meaning users become more willing to reassess their mindset. According to researchers, there could be a role for a small, pure dose of MDMA in group-based therapy, helping people from different communities “see each other as fellow human beings”.