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Feeling the Love with Rachel Nuwer

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Note: Guests of The Psychedelic Blog do not endorse, support, or otherwise advocate on behalf of any particular treatment approach for mental illnesses unless stated otherwise. The views expressed during this interview do not necessarily reflect the opinions or endorsement of The Psychedelic Blog. Readers should always consult with qualified healthcare professionals and conduct their own research before considering any treatment options. The blog and its authors are not responsible for any decisions made based on the information provided.

Fragile Flowers

“Don’t worry!”

The Psychedelic Blog: We were four guys sitting cross-legged in a circle on the zebra-patterned throw rug of my friend’s brother’s beachfront condo. One of those guys, tall and perpetually sweaty, was Bill. In a measured, ceremonial style, he handed each of us a tablet and instructed us to close our eyes and take three deep breaths before swallowing it. JJ assured us beforehand that it was the “latest thing” in Europe and completely safe. “Just stay hydrated”; the instructions sounded easy enough.

We stared at each other while waiting for a sign—any sign—that it was working. We kept asking the person next to us, “Do you feel anything?” The response was always, “No.” After 30 minutes, we were convinced that the “latest thing” was a dud. Undeterred, we agreed that we should try another. Bill complied.

Shortly after that, my friends having disappeared from my line of vision and into themselves, I felt an overwhelming sensation akin to being on a rollercoaster. Clutching my knees tightly to my chest, I could almost hear the rhythmic click, click, click as the rollercoaster climbed to its unseen apex. Awash in anticipation, I squeezed my eyes shut and braced for whatever came next.

Now, plunging into the unknown, I gritted my teeth with a blend of terror and exhilaration, barely hanging on. No car, no rails. I found myself in freefall, hurtling down an impossibly steep void at breakneck speed through a blurred cosmos. It was like being inside the wormhole with Jodi Foster in the movie Contact. I don’t know if it was a moment of ecstatic joy or paralyzing fear, but I am quite certain that before reaching this much-anticipated destination, the doorbell rang. My eyes opened immediately, and I was jolted back to reality—in the same place, on the same floor, with the same guys, except that Z had gone to open the front door. Then he blurted out the words that, all these years later, I could easily identify in an audio line-up, “Don’t worry!”

It was the summer of ’86, and I had come to southern Spain with Z, my university buddy. The person at the door turned out to be JJ and Z’s mother (who probably gave her boys full names at birth, although I seem to have caught them in their minimalist period). Having just gulped down two tablets of MDMA, I was still lucid enough to recognize that “don’t” and “worry” were universally known as the two words mostly likely to make someone worry—mothers in particular—especially when used together in an exclamatory phrase. This mother, however, fancied herself “the cool mom,” and I had a hunch that she was way ahead of us all on the MDMA front. Thus, the experience resumed.

It remains a mystery where my living room odyssey would have taken me, and although I didn’t truly experience MDMA’s famous loving feeling, it sparked curiosity in me. I'm Robert Benz. That part of this blog is my story. Now, I'm excited to speak with Rachel Nuwer about her book, I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World. Let’s connect with Rachel.

Rachel Nuwer

Rachel Nuwer is an award-winning freelance journalist who reports on science, travel, food, and adventure for the New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and more. Her multi-award winning first book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, was published in 2018 by Da Capo Press.

In 2010, Rachel investigated illegal wildlife trade and natural resource use in Vietnam for her ecology master’s thesis at the University of East Anglia. She published her research in the scientific journal Oryx. In 2011, she earned a second master’s degree from New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP).

Elephants feel love

After reading I Feel Love, I sent Rachel a note asking if we could discuss the book for The Psychedelic Blog. She agreed, but we postponed our discussion so that I—and some of the personalities in her book—could participate in a series of Zoom calls she planned to host. I enjoyed the calls thoroughly and even connected with some of the other participants.

I emailed Rachel after the last Zoom call and asked if she could make time for an interview. She had a series of commitments coming up, but she told me that if I could do it at that moment, she had a brief window of time to talk. That happened to be my window too.

We had a very nice chat, which would have made for a truly informative blog had I remembered to press record (head slap!). I’ve heard about the possibility of recurring effects from psychedelic trips, but I wasn’t about to blame the MDMA experience 37 years ago for this one. I quickly confessed my mistake to Rachel via email, and she was gracious enough to say that she had a few minutes before her appointment and that we could quickly go through the questions again. Now, I was feeling the love too (mixed with a dash of embarrassment).

The story of MDMA—a.k.a. ecstasy or molly—is a captivating one, and Rachel tells it with exceptional skill. Her passion for the subject reveals itself throughout the book, as does that of the people she interviews. I Feel Love intertwines historical narrative, scientific discovery, social revolution, criminal intrigue, and personal reflections on how MDMA has affected lives both positively and negatively. The journey spans from Merck’s initial synthesis of MDMA in 1912 to the present, covering the rediscovery and application of this drug by the trailblazing chemist Alexander Shulgin in California in 1975, its subsequent use in therapy, couples counseling, and trauma treatment, and the current potential for US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The narrative follows MDMA’s transition to the dance floors of Dallas and NYC in the 80s, igniting the rave culture in the UK and culminating in its recent recognition as a medicine in Australia. The book earns its title with the major theme of connection.

Clubbing with MDMA

"Why do we seek out substances that alter the business-as-usual functioning of our minds?"

- Rachel Nuwer

Early in the book, Rachel asks, “Why do we seek out substances that alter the business-as-usual functioning of our minds?” She answers by saying, “Some experts argue that there exists across the animal kingdom—in species as varied as goats, birds, ants, elephants, cats, and slugs—an innate drive to tinker with consciousness, akin to the desire for food and sex. Homo sapiens is no exception.”

The so-called “stoned ape theory” sought to show how this tinkering may have fast-tracked human evolution. Popularized by Michael Pollan in his 2018 bestseller How to Change Your Mind, the theory was developed by psychedelic pioneers Dennis and Terence McKenna. It suggests the fascinating possibility that about two million years ago, hominids consuming psychedelic mushrooms growing in cow dung may have spurred the emergence of consciousness and contributed to a tripling of the brain’s size. This theory speaks powerfully to either the transformative potential of these substances or their penchant for inspiring some truly creative thinking.

“The potential of the psychedelic drugs to provide access to the interior universe, is, I believe, their most valuable property.”

- Alexander Shulgin, Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story (1995)

Rachel also touches upon the profound impact that the ritual use of psychedelics might have had on the lives of pre and early Christians by referencing Brian Muraresku’s 2020 bestseller, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. Muraresku presents evidence to suggest that a strong hallucinogen—probably ergot, the active ingredient in LSD—was the source of visions in pagan rituals that predated and crossed over into Christianity. This is part of the continuity hypothesis that connects early Christianity to what Muraresku refers to as “the religion with no name” – the ancient religion that lacked formal recognition and whose adherents were sworn to secrecy about its rituals. Muraresku’s powerful arguments in The Immortality Key are not generated by anything other than keen scholarship and theoretical innovation, as he makes it clear that he has never tried psychedelics. I read this book twice and still struggle to wrap my head around its implications on the western world.

Making connections

While I would have loved to ask Rachel questions about every aspect of her book, I selected the topics that intrigued me the most. By spending more than 15 years developing strategies to combat human trafficking and closely following the work of a dear friend who, with her team, addresses the abuse of power dynamics by teachers, coaches, and counselors, I was particularly interested in discussing the risk of therapist sexual misconduct. It makes sense that the ever-intensifying spotlight on psychedelic-assisted therapies will lead to a surging demand for qualified therapists. It’s my belief that the greater the urgency for fulfilling that demand quickly, the greater the risk that predators will find their way into the field.

Robert: Rachel, while researching the book, how open were people to talking about the vulnerability of patients in the therapeutic setting?

Rachel: People were pretty open. I didn’t encounter anyone refusing to talk or being weird about talking about it or denying that it existed. I did have one person go off the record because she’s a MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] consultant, but she was also critiquing MAPS’ response to the Meaghan Buisson case*, so she thought that there may be a conflict of interest. Overall, I got the sense that people are happy to talk about this and acknowledge that it’s a significant problem that we need to talk about.

* Robert: Meaghan Buisson, a former Canadian inline speed-skating national champion, enrolled in a clinical trial in 2014 to test MDMA-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder (a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event) stemming from childhood sexual abuse. Buisson formed a close relationship with her therapists, Richard Yensen and Dr. Donna Dryer. In 2017, Buisson filed a lawsuit against them, alleging inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, including sexual assault by Yensen. Yensen admitted to a sexual relationship but claimed Buisson initiated it. Dr. Dryer was aware of this relationship but did not report it. MAPS, which sponsored the study, denied prior knowledge of any misconduct by Yensen or Dryer. Buisson warns of the risks involved in these treatments, emphasizing the responsibility of patients for their own care.

Robert: So, you think that sexual assault during psychedelic-assisted therapy is potentially a big problem?

Rachel: I think—just looking at data from therapy that doesn’t involve drugs—we can see it’s a major problem.* There’s no reason that’s going to go away in psychedelic-assisted therapy; if anything, depending on the type of person who’s attracted to this line of work, it could become worse.

*Robert: In her book, Rachel references a study by Alpert et al. (2017) called “Sexual Boundary Violations: A Century of Violations and a Time to Analyze.” The study meticulously chronicles the history and patterns surrounding “the incidence of erotic contact between patients and practitioners.” Significantly, it reveals a concerning statistic: based on an aggregation of numerous studies, between 7% and 12% of therapists have reported engaging in such conduct. The study suggests that the numbers may be even higher, as these results rely on self-reporting.

Robert: How do you think your personal experience with MDMA affects your perception of the science behind psychedelic-assisted therapies or any other aspect of psychedelics?

Rachel: There’s no such thing as journalistic objectivity. The best that we can do as human beings in trying to produce something is to present a fair approach to all sides of the subject, which is what I try to do with all my work. I went into this with a point of view: I am an MDMA user. I’m a fan of MDMA, and I was up front about that with readers.

It’s the same with my previous book on wildlife poaching (Poached). I was upfront with readers about the fact that I love animals. I’m not pro-wildlife poaching. That said, I tried to present people with information that they can then assess for themselves and [use to] draw their own conclusions. That’s one of the reasons why it was so important to me not just to come across as some cheerleader for the importance of MDMA but to present other views and other experiences with the drug, such as the case of the 15-year-old girl, Martha, who tragically overdosed on MDMA. It’s like anything in life; it’s not just black and white. There are all kinds of nuance, and harms, and good that can come of this.

Psychedelic research

Robert: How important would it be for the field of psychedelic science to have researchers disclose their own personal experiences with psychedelics?

Rachel: I don’t think that it’s absolutely necessary for researchers to be forthcoming about their use of psychedelics or other drugs, just like we don’t ask alcohol researchers if they drink. It’s just not necessarily material to the science. That being said, I’m personally curious about everybody’s experience. As a journalist, I value being forthcoming and having honest discussions. I’m always interested in how people came to the subject they’re studying.*

I do understand, though, why some researchers would be hesitant to disclose that they have used drugs. There still is a ton of stigma around it. They might not want to give the appearance of being biased toward “proving” that psychedelics work in one way or another. So, yeah, I can understand it each way, and I also respect arguments from people like Julie Holland and Carl Hart about the importance of people coming out of the so-called “psychedelic closet” to reduce stigma further and promote decriminalization and legalization efforts. But that’s definitely outside the scope of what a scientist is called on to do. It’s just a personal decision that people can make for themselves.

*Robert: I wanted to mention two studies to the readers related to how psychedelic use might affect the subjectivity of one’s views. One study published in Nature and called “Alternative Beliefs in Psychedelic Drug Users” (Lebedev et al., 2023) states that “despite the lack of evidence for adverse effects on mental health stemming from psychedelic use, concerns persist regarding the capacity of these substances to modulate information processing and attitudes toward factual data.” It also says, “Our findings revealed a moderate positive association between psychedelic use and beliefs in alternative facts, as well as the specific belief that facts are politically influenced. However, no links were found for favoring intuition over evidence when confirming facts.”

An earlier study called “Psychedelics Alter Metaphysical Beliefs” (Timmermann et al., 2021) sought to “determine whether and how beliefs concerning the nature of reality, consciousness, and free-will change after psychedelic use.” Among the authors of this study is Robin L. Carhart-Harris, one of the most respected figures in the field of psychedelic research. The authors’ results “revealed significant shifts away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ views, and towards panpsychism and fatalism, post use. With the exception of fatalism, these changes endured for at least 6 months, and were positively correlated with the extent of past psychedelic-use and improved mental-health outcomes.”

Anyway, I love talking about the ways in which mind-altering substances may do just that—alter one’s mind—both in the short and long term.

Life changes moments

"Something that you take just a handful of times can have this profound impact that

can last years or, perhaps, even a

lifetime for some people."

- Rachel Nuwer

Robert: Rachel, let’s talk about Gül Dölen’s research. What was the most interesting aspect for you?

Rachel: Her research is fascinating. I’m not a neuroscientist, so it was a steep learning curve for me. Fortunately, she was very patient in explaining the science on many long Zoom calls. The caveat with Gül’s research is that it has not been replicated. Until it’s replicated in another lab or labs, the jury is still out. But I think Gül is providing, for now, what seems to be the most convincing mechanistic explanation of why MDMA and other psychedelic-assisted therapies can seemingly work so well in most people who get them. Something that you take just a handful of times can have this profound impact that can last years or, perhaps, even a lifetime for some people. That’s a really powerful explanation, although it’s one that the FDA actually does not require, because for a new pharmaceutical to pass, they just have to show efficacy and safety. But, as human beings, I think that we all wonder and we want to know answers. We’re curious by nature, but more than that, knowing exactly how these drugs work can help us figure out how to better amplify the good and reduce the risks and potential harms that can come with these powerful substances.

I also think that Gül’s work is just really interesting in what it reveals about the makings of the human brain. We get older and we have this sense that we’ve become rigid and inflexible in our ways—“can’t teach a dog new tricks”—but Gül’s research shines a light on the fact that we all can learn new things under the right circumstances. I just think it’s really fascinating.

Robert: What Rachel is alluding to here, which is one of the key areas of Gül’s research, is the idea of “critical periods.” In the field of neuroscience and developmental psychology, “critical periods” refer to times, typically during early life, when the brain is particularly receptive to certain types of stimuli coming from the environment. This is why, for instance, children are able to pick-up new languages much faster and easier than adults. During these periods, the brain’s neural circuits are super plastic and can be shaped or altered in meaningful ways by external experiences. Psychedelics, in some cases, are thought to reopen these critical periods. This gives the brain the ability to undue old patterns of behavior and learn new ones.

Robert: You talk a little about going to raves in the book. Do you still go to raves and to big festivals?

Rachel: Yeah, I’m not a huge festival person, but I definitely, every three or four months, do MDMA in a club setting. My favorite is House of Yes here in Brooklyn, New York. I just love the vibe there. I love the music, and I love that most people on the dance floor seem to be on the same vibe as me. I personally find raves to be (a) super fun and (b) therapeutic because they are so fun. You know, after I do MDMA, I fortunately am not one of those people who has the sharp come down, the midweek blues that people refer to. After I do MDMA, okay, I’m a little tired, but I’m actually rejuvenated, re-energized, and a happier person for at least a few weeks. So I love partying on MDMA.

Robert: It’s therapeutic for you?

Rachel: Yes, it’s therapeutic in as much as it is a vehicle for tremendous fun. I’m not going there thinking that I’m going to have a therapeutic session tonight at this club. I’m going to have as much fun as I can pack into eight hours, and for me, the end result is therapeutic because I come out of that experience as a person that I like more. I’m less agitated and angry about things. My neuroses are kind of calmed down for a while and clamped down and I just feel clearer and lighter and happier, and I’m able to put that into my work [and] into my personal relationships. So, yes, in the end, it is therapeutic, but perhaps indirectly.

Robert: I appreciate having Rachel share with us. I hadn’t really thought much about that day back in the summer of ’86 until I read Rachel’s book. Her meticulous exploration of history, combined with the diverse perspectives of those she interviewed, not only helped fill in some of the blanks from my experience all those years ago but also illuminated the profound impact such encounters might have on our lives.

As we finish this blog, Feeling the Love with Rachel Nuwer, it becomes clear that MDMA’s story, much like our own, is one of complexity, potential, and a continuous search for deeper understanding. Hopefully, next time we’ll all make it to our destinations.

Be sure to pick up Rachel’s outstanding book:

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