In a new scientific study published in Scientific Reports, researchers have uncovered surprising findings about the effects of two commonly known drugs, MDMA (commonly referred to as ecstasy or molly) and methamphetamine, on human connection and feelings of closeness with conversation partners. Contrary to expectations, both drugs were found to enhance feelings of connectedness, with methamphetamine exhibiting stronger long-term effects.
MDMA and methamphetamine are both psychoactive substances, but they are typically associated with distinct effects and reputations. MDMA has long been recognized for its empathogenic and prosocial properties. Users often report increased feelings of closeness, trust, and emotional openness when taking MDMA, which has led to its use in therapeutic settings and recreational contexts.
On the other hand, methamphetamine is commonly associated with stimulant effects, increased energy, and improved focus. It’s used medically for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity but is also notorious for its potential for misuse and addiction.
The researchers embarked on this study with the aim of shedding light on how MDMA and methamphetamine affect the dynamics of social interactions. While anecdotal reports have hinted at the prosocial nature of MDMA, and its potential in psychotherapy, the objective was to investigate these effects rigorously in a scientific setting.
“We were interested because MDMA is widely thought to induce prosocial feelings, or feelings of closeness to others,” said study author Harriet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
“These feelings may contribute both to its appeal as a recreational drug and to its apparent value when used in psychotherapy, to treat PTSD, among other conditions. However, this prosocial effect has not been systematically studied under controlled, double blind conditions.
“Therefore, we designed a study to measure feelings of closeness and connectedness to a conversational partner after administration of MDMA or placebo. As a comparison condition, we also measured the same feelings after a more typical stimulant drug, methamphetamine.”
The study involved two separate experiments, one with MDMA (18 participants) and the other with methamphetamine (19 participants). Each study included participants who engaged in conversations with partners while under the influence of the respective drug or a placebo. These interactions took place under double-blind conditions, meaning that neither the participants nor the researchers knew whether they were given the substance or a placebo.
During these conversations, participants were asked to rate various aspects of their interactions, such as how much they liked their conversation partner, how enjoyable they found the conversation, and how meaningful it was. The researchers also measured feelings of connection using the Inclusion of Other in the Self (IOS) scale and assessed partner responsiveness and participant interest using the Couples’ Daily Conversation Scale (CDCS). Physiological measures like blood pressure, heart rate, and salivary oxytocin levels were also recorded.
MDMA, known for its reputation as an empathogenic substance, indeed lived up to its name. It significantly increased feelings of liking their conversation partner, making the conversation more enjoyable and meaningful. Notably, it enhanced feelings of connection and the sense that their partners were genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings. Salivary oxytocin levels also increased, and these levels were positively correlated with participants’ feelings of closeness.
“MDMA increased feelings of connection, or feeling in sync with their partner, and how meaningful the conversation was relative to when they took a placebo,” said Hanna Molla, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study.
Surprisingly, while methamphetamine is not typically associated with enhancing social connections, it produced remarkably similar effects to MDMA. Participants under the influence of methamphetamine reported higher levels of enjoyment, meaningfulness, liking for their conversation partner, and feelings of connection. This finding challenges preconceived notions about methamphetamine and suggests that it may also have the power to facilitate social bonding.
“MDMA does increase feelings of connectedness and closeness with a conversation partner, compared to placebo,” de Wit told PsyPost. “This confirms anecdotal reports from users. Interestingly, we saw the same effect with methamphetamine. This suggests that the closeness effect is not unique to MDMA.”
Moreover, methamphetamine appeared to have distinct effects, such as increasing participants’ reports of attentiveness during the interaction and decreasing negative aspects of the conversation, like communication difficulties or feeling drained of energy.
Another fascinating discovery was that both MDMA and methamphetamine had lasting effects on feelings of connection. Participants reported feeling more connected even a week after their conversations, with methamphetamine showing a more pronounced lasting effect.
“We were surprised that methamphetamine produced feelings of connectedness with a conversation partner that were very similar to the effects of MDMA,” de Wit said. “We expected that these effects would be more pronounced with MDMA. This kind of unexpected finding illustrates the importance of conducting control conditions to confirm or challenge expectations.”
While these findings provide valuable insights, there are some limitations to consider. For instance, the studies only involved participants in their twenties and primarily focused on individuals without psychiatric conditions. Further research is needed to determine if these effects apply to a more diverse range of individuals.
The next steps in research may involve exploring how different social contexts and settings might alter responses to these drugs and investigating the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for enhanced social interactions. Moreover, future studies could examine the potential therapeutic applications of these findings, particularly in the realm of MDMA-assisted therapy.
“Many questions remain to be addressed,” de Wit told PsyPost. “First, the findings should be replicated by others. Second, do the drugs produce similar effects in more diverse individuals such as those with psychiatric symptomatology, or different ages, or different ethnicities?”
“Third, what are the neurobiological mechanisms that mediate feelings of closeness with others? For example, in our study we found that closeness after MDMA was related to increases in the social hormone oxytocin, but closeness after methamphetamine was not related to oxytocin levels. This suggests that the drugs produce feelings of connectedness by different mechanisms.”
The study, “Drug‑induced social connection: both MDMA and methamphetamine increase feelings of connectedness during controlled dyadic conversations“, was authored by Hanna Molla, Royce Lee, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Harriet de Wit.