MDMA makes it easier to describe emotional memories to your therapist

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New research suggests the drug MDMA — commonly known as ecstasy or molly — makes people more comfortable with describing their emotional memories, possibly because it increases feelings of authenticity.

Scientists are currently examining MDMA as a therapeutic tool to aid the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric conditions. MDMA is noted for its prosocial effects, such as increasing empathy and openness. Initial research in the late 1980s found it could “decrease defensiveness and enhance feelings of emotional closeness” during psychotherapy sessions, but investigation of the drug ground to a halt in the late 1980s when it was outlawed in the United States.

In a new study, a team of researchers lead by Matthew J. Baggott sought to further examine the potentially therapeutic effects of MDMA.

The researchers administered MDMA to 6 female and 6 male volunteers in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. The results were was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

They found that people under the influence of MDMA felt more comfortable talking about emotional memories and reported less social anxiety. The volunteers were more likely to feel like they were able to express themselves without self-censoring after ingesting the drug.

“We found that MDMA simultaneously positively altered evaluation of the self (i.e. increasing feelings of authenticity) while decreasing concerns about negative evaluation by others (i.e. decreasing social anxiety). Consistent with these feelings, MDMA increased how comfortable participants felt describing emotional memories,” Baggott and his colleagues explained.

This increased sense of authenticity and openness is what differentiates MDMA from classical psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybe mushrooms, they said.

MDMA did not appear to significantly alter the volunteers’ ability to recall or understand memories. But the drug did alter how people talked about their memories. After taking MDMA, the participants tended to use less words to describe their emotional memories. They also tended to speak more in the present tense, use words showing assent, and use words relating to family.

Two previous studies also found that MDMA altered how people talked. One study from 2015 found MDMA caused volunteers to use more social and sexual words, and talk more about the future and death. The other, from 2014, found that MDMA increased positive word use in a social interaction.

“Although conclusive studies are lacking and the current study must be considered preliminary and requires replication, MDMA appears to have unusual socioemotional effects, consistent with the proposal that it represents a new class of psychoactive with psychotherapeutic potential,” the researchers concluded.