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Now Get in the Pit and Try to Love Someone: Ecstasy, Empathy, & Evolution

Jakki Rowlett

Ecstasy: A Very Brief History

Use of the drug Ecstasy, or “E” as it is sometimes called has become increasingly popular over the past two decades. MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), the active ingredient in Ecstasy, was originally patented in 1913 by the German pharmaceutical company E.Merk as an appetite suppressant. In the 1980's, MDMA reemerged as a recreational drug in European clubs, then rapidly spread to the U.S. The drug is best known for its connection with the rave culture, however use of the drug outside of clubs is becoming increasingly more prevalent, despite the fact that it has been illegal for over 80 years. (1).

Drugs Are Bad...M’kay

We all know drugs are bad. That nice D.A.R.E. officer who came to your school wasn’t lying to you: dizziness, nausea, nervousness, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, etc. - and these are just the side-effects of the legal prescription drugs that they advertise on TV. Short-term side effects of Ecstasy can include dizziness, sweating, high blood pressure, dehydration, and jaw-clenching. Long term affects are controversial and for the most part inconclusive due to the fact that in 1985 the DEA classified MDMA as Schedule 1, effectively banning not only its use and distribution, but oddly, its use for research, as well. Some of the long term effects include, long-term memory loss, potentially permanent axon damage (we will get to axons later), and a wide variety of psychiatric sequalae such as panic attacks, depersonalization, hallucinations, anxiety, depression, and on and on.(2). (3). Suffice it to say that when you add any new ingredient to your own personal chemical soup you can never be sure of what strange brew you might end up with. But, since the purpose of this paper is neither to condone nor to vilify the use of this drug, I leave it to the reader to consult the sources listed if they are interested in a more complete catalog of the negative effects of this cotroversial drug. The purpose of this paper is to focus on how the drug works and to look specifically at one reported effect of the drug, the empathic quality, and to see if there is perhaps a biological imperative at work which contributes to its widening popularity and which goes beyond the more purely hedonistic or strictly sensual effects that users of the drug cite as the reason for their continued use of the drug.

Not Just A Six Hour Orgasm

A quote in a recent Time Magazine article describes Ecstasy as “a six-hour orgasm.” (1). This seems an apt and succinct way of conveying the the consensus of (positive) effects reported by users, which include: feelings of euphoria, both stimulation and relaxation (sometimes concurrently, sometimes situationally) increased sensory perceptions (especially tactile), feelings of happiness, insight, a sense of peace, a lowering of inhibitions, and a decrease (especially in males) of aggressiveness. In addition to the effects listed above, there are a whole range of feelings associated with the Ecstasy high that are reported and variously expressed as feelings of openess, of closeness, of an increased sensitivity to and understanding of, other people. (1). (3). It is this quality of the drug, which I will call the empathic experience, that I deal with in this paper. The empathic experience is one that is so central to the enjoyment of the drug that users define and inquire about the quality of of a pill, which because of its “designer” nature is often “cut, or mixed with other chemicals (with varying degrees of efficacy), by the amount of “feeling,” one can hope for, as in: “Does this pill/batch have a lot of feeling?” In 1992 psychiatrists who were trying to identify the psychological effects experimented by trying the drugs themselves. They reported that they “related to other people more openly with less fear or defensiveness.” Half said that the drug had a positive lasting effect on their social/interpersonal functioning. The effects of MDMA may be compared to the effects of the drug Fluxetine (Prozac), except that the Ecstasy experience is much more intense, (3). and Prozac doesn’t have any of MDMA’s entactogenic qualities. (2).

This is Your Brain on E

Serotonin is likely the major reason for the empathic experience of MDMA. Serotonin is an amine neurotransmitter which modulates a wide variety of behavioral and non-behavioral functions including, sleep, appetite, aggressiveness, pain sensitivity, and mood.(5). Ecstasy causes vesicles in the brain to release a huge amount of serotonin at one time, flooding the areas at the end of the axon, which prevents reuptake, thereby increasing the amount of serotonin that remains in the brain. (1). Mood disorders such as depression are treated with drugs that block the reuptake of serotonin into the presynaptic axon terminal.(6). Falling in love and other positive events that cause you to feel happiness cause greater serotonin release. So does taking Ecstasy. (4). (For a really nifty visual of your brain on Ecstasy see the slideshow at

Cause I’m Like You...

So what the heck does all of this have to do with evolution, for pete’s sake? I’ll get to that. But first a little bit about empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. Nathanson describes empathy as an “anologic amplifier of stimulus conditions,” such as facial or vocal expressions, that broadcast the affect to the “self of the observer/listener” which through a process of internal contagion triggers the same (or similar affect) in the observer. He further states that this affective experience is an innate mechanism “triggered within a highly complex matrix of nested and interactive ideo-formations.” The affect is physiological, the emotional, or empathic quality, emerges when we become aware of that an affect has been triggered and combine it with our memories of prior experiences of similar affects. Human beings have the same mechanisms, the same nine innate affects, that reside in our subcortical brains; (7). however because of our widely varying life experiences, this emotional transfer we call empathy is needed in order to understand another person’s history. It increases tolerance and sympathy and lessens hostility toward our fellow man.

So You Say You Want Some Evolution...

If the biological equation superior = that which survives is true, might there be an element of the biological imperative toward survival in the recidivistic usage of the drug Ecstasy? Sorenson points out various ways in which empathy is necessary to survival. For our purposes we will focus on reproduction. Empathy provides leverage in competition for mates. Empathic men make better mates. They are more attractive to females and are better able to calculate what females and their allies want. Furthermore, empathic men make better fathers, and so the reproductive advantage is continued beyond mating. (8). In addition, as we have already pointed out, empathy dampens aggressiveness, especially in males. One phenomenon reported, almost universally, at raves where ecstasy is present, is the distinct lack of male aggression that tends to be more prevalent at clubs where alcohol is served.(3). Not only do males benefit by channeling the energy they would waste in mindless acts of aggression into more mating-friendly activities, but females, sensitive to this “vibe” feel more free to dance, mingle, and flirt without fearing unwanted aggressive behavior from the males present. And similarly, females, experiencing the same empathic feelings from the drug are more receptive and less inhibited towards the males present. In light of the fact that these feelings of empathy are the the most unique and most desired qualities of ecstasy, it seems reasonable to me to speculate that the biological urge to procreate may be an underlying factor in the drug's continued popularity.

Generation X and Y-Not?

Are baggy pants and a love of house music inheritable traits. Let’s hope not. But what might Generations X and Y hope to offer the next generation? The idea of cultivating empathy is one that intrigues me. As children we are endowed with natural powers of empathy. As we grow older we become more reserved, developing what Nathanson calls the “empathic wall” (7). and what Wilhelm Reich called “body armor,” (3). effectively damping our natural sensitivity towards others as well as the tendency toward mimesis, a byproduct of this sensitivity which aids in the empathic exchange. Rasing these walls and breaking through the body armor seems to me a noble endeavor,and Generations X and Y, facing the challenges of an increasingly more alienating techno-society may just be looking for a way over the wall, a way to shed the armor. I am left hoping that there is a way that the trait can be passed on in the biological sense, in ways that are more significant than those nominally suggested in this paper, either neurologically or perhaps, hormonally. Maybe that’s another paper.

WWW Sources

1)Ecstasy - is it all it promises to be? , On the IAfrica health and fitness web page. A doctor answers questions about Ecstasy.

2)Ecstasy: Facts and Myths, On Ravesafe, a web page for ravers

3)What E does and how it works, a chapter from the book E for Ecstasy, by Nicholas Saunders

4)What happens to your brain on E, a really cool slideshow on the dancesafe site - another raver website.

5)Neurotransmitters, On the brainmachines website; and what would you do with a brain if you had one?

6)Serotonin, On the Biological Psychology web sitee of California State University, Chico

7)From Empathy to Community , by Donald L. NathansonThe Silvan S. Tomkins Institute; reprinted from the The Annual Psychoanalysis, Volume 25, 1997 by the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.

8)Self Strengthening Empathy, by Roy Sorenson, Professor, NYU

The San Diego Union-Tribune referred to this paper in an article on 9 April, 2003