Can MDMA Make You Racist?
Apr 3 2014
You don’t have a lot of time for rational thought after dropping a pill. Three Mitsis in and you’re almost entirely preoccupied with finding out what people’s scarves feel like, or busy trying to focus on literally anything through your rapid-fire flicker-eyes. So you’d have thought that, amid all the euphoria and heart palpitations, there surely wouldn't be space to get hung up on the ethnicity of everyone around you.
However, it turns out that the brain's biochemistry during a blissed out club night might not be too dissimilar from a rally during the EDL's golden years. This is because of a hormone called oxytocin, which has been described by many as "the love hormone" or the "cuddle drug". The hormone has been linked to developing trust between mother and child during breast feeding, and between partners after intercourse. Its release is also triggered by MDMA, and that loved-up feeling you get after swallowing a pill has been attributed to the effects the hormone has on the brain.
However, research by Professor Carsten De Dreu at the University of Amsterdam revealed that oxytocin had a slightly more sinister side. In short, his experiments revealed that what many thought of as the "moral molecule" was actually quite the opposite, contributing towards what scientists euphemistically refer to as "ethnocentrism", or what the layman would call racism.
Participants in Dr Dreu's experiment were presented with a dilemma where they had to deny one person access to a lifeboat in order to save five others. In the double-blind experiment, Dutch men were given either oxytocin via a nasal spray, or a placebo. The results showed that those taking oxytocin were more likely to spare men with Dutch names, while sacrificing those with Muslim or German-sounding names. On the placebo, however, the name of the potential victim didn’t matter.
I found it strange that this hormone, which supposedly makes you love everything around you, also apparently turns you into that very specific type of dickhead who chooses to be hostile to someone for the colour of their skin. So, to find out more, I got in touch with Professor Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex and Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. He said that this effect of oxytocin could have something to do evolution and social survival.
“The idea of altruism and pro-sociality has been looked at a lot by anthropologists and social scientists who recognise that while it often pays to be pro-social among your in-group – those who share common cultural interests and who may even be distantly related to you – the opposite might apply with your out-group,” he said.
In other words, discrimination against people who are different to you could be produced naturally by a hormone in the human brain. I asked him what exact role oxytocin has in this process, and he then told me about another one of Dr Dreu’s experiments where subjects were put into two groups and had to make arbitrary judgements about whether abstract shapes were attractive or not. Of course, there was no right or wrong answer – the real test was to see which group agreed with each other more.
“Where the groups disagreed about a shape, oxytocin would increase the homogeneity within each group," Professor Seth told me. "So, if you're in a group and you're all sniffing oxytocin, you’re more likely to be like, 'Ah yeah, that square is brilliant – I can't understand why those guys over there hate the square.' And, of course, this is all relatively unconscious, so people don't know the oxytocin is having this effect. The shape isn't the issue, it's how similar a group’s view is when they know it differs from another group.”
What sprung to mind here was that when certain racist street groups – like the EDL in their heyday, for example – get together, their emotions do often seem to be far more pronounced than they would be if you caught each individual member alone. Of course, that also probably has something to do with the fact that their starting point for these marches is usually a pub – and all the antifascists who turn up to throw stuff at them presumably don't help much in keeping the aggro down.
Compare this to the feeling of togetherness you get at raves or gigs, or those scenes of mass euphoria you get at American Evangelist mega-churches, and the common link is an intense shared belief. Essentially, it’s all part of our unavoidable human nature to band together, even at the expense of reason or logical thought.
An important distinction to make at this point is that oxytocin’s role in these phenomena is not to produce a particular distrust for those different to you, but more a kinship to those who share qualities you recognise in yourself. So the result isn't so much racism as it is fanaticism.
Oxytocin does this through its ability to spread emotion around a group of people, almost like a virus. Professor Seth explained this to me in more detail: “We all have emotional contagion, where if I'm a bit happy, you're a bit happy – or if I'm a bit unhappy, you’re a bit unhappy. Oxytocin is potentially playing a role in optimising how this inference about the causes of emotional states happens.”
In other words, increased oxytocin makes us more empathic – more sensitive to the emotions around us. This idea was backed up in a recent study, published in January this year, that found that high levels of oxytocin can trigger oversensitivity to the emotions of others. There’s even some current research looking into how insufficient oxytocin could contribute towards autism – a disorder that is commonly associated with a lack of an emotional understanding of others.
The result is that when people of shared beliefs get together, oxytocin is released and it makes them feel good, reinforcing their behaviour. It then makes them more likely to stick to those beliefs and shun those who don’t agree, all in the evolutionary pursuit of fostering an in-group of companions who will stick together, protect each other and love each other.
So, does MDMA make you racist? No, not really.
Yes, MDMA releases oxytocin, and oxytocin can produce ethnocentrism, but there's no direct link between the two – and MDMA has so many other chemical effects on the brain that individual experiences are always highly subjective.
However, what MDMA can do – especially in an environment of intense shared experience, like a rave – is to deeply intensify a kind of single-minded, delusional fanaticism about you, the people around you and just how great everything is, in the same way racists become a little more racist during street marches and Christians become a little more Christian when they have a preacher screaming at them in tongues.