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Decades ago, ecstasy — yes, MDMA — was used in marriage counseling

A revival is occurring, and we sure can use it.

  • For the first decade after it was synthesized, MDMA was used in individual and couples therapy.
  • Many therapists spoke against the criminalization of MDMA in 1985 due to the drug's therapeutic potential.
  • A revival has occurred in recent years, with the government allowing clinical trials to move forward.

Before the second "M" was affixed to "MDA," researchers spent decades searching for a utility for the mescaline derivative. Patented as "methylsafrylamin" in 1914 by Merck, the drug was shelved because no one could quite figure out what to do with it — similar to the incredible story of LSD.

That was until California pharmacologist Gordon A. Alles realized that MDA was rather interesting, indeed. He partnered with Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo to test out this "psychotherapeutic" substance. Naranjo's partner, Alexander Shulgin, synthesized the more commonly known MDMA, which proved to be less hallucinogenic and less toxic than its original formation.

An early enthusiast was psychotherapist Leo Zeff, who began using psychedelics such as LSD in his practice in 1961. A few years later he discovered MDA through an associate of Shulgin. In 1977, Shulgin introduced Zeff to his new synthesis, which the therapist immediately took to. He trained more than 150 therapists in its usage over the next 12 years, administering it to over 4,000 clients.

This changed in 1985 when the U.S. government labelled MDMA a Schedule 1 drug, claiming it has no therapeutic utility. Many therapists offered testimony to the contrary, to no avail. Zeff, along with many others, went underground. This wasn't the government's first foray into an MDA derivative: in the 1950s the U.S. Army declared it to have no military use since the only feeling it seemed to invoke was compassion. In a country that spends more on defense than any other nation in history, this simply would not do.

As with many other victims of the "war on drugs," both Nixon's and Reagan's, MDMA got itself in trouble by becoming popular outside of therapy, namely on dance floors. Teenagers enjoying themselves dancing to club music was apparently a social burden. Granted, as with virtually every substance, MDMA has a toxicity level that must be recognized; not every club night ended happily. To declare it useless, however, points more to the mindset of the administration than the therapist's couch.

Rick Doblin On Using MDMA In Couples Therapy

Especially when that couch is a bed. While MDMA is now being shown to help alleviate PTSD, and many therapists used it in individual counseling in the 1970s and '80s, couples received immense benefits from ingesting this "love drug" in its early days. Rick Ingrasci, who used LSD in therapy until it was banned, turned to MDMA next. Between 1980–85, he treated 100 patients in over 150 sessions; a third of his sessions were with couples.

To be clear, MDMA is not a "sexual" drug. When Ann Shulgin, Alexander's therapist wife, administered it to patients, she made them consent to the "four agreements," one of which was "no sexual activity." Confusing boundaries could easily be breached when one is in such an open, transparent state.

That does not mean there is no sensual element. Sensuality in this context requires a redefinition, such as the way your favorite food enlivens your senses and a song embeds itself deeply into your consciousness. A strong bonding element is possible with MDMA, which applies to one's mindset as easily as relationship challenges faced by couples.

Professionals have always realized this. While Friederike Meckel Fisher was imprisoned for using psychedelics, including MDMA and LSD, in her therapy practice after a spurned client retaliated, she now advocates for their usage in couples therapy. MDMA alleviates fear, she says, which allows individuals to access parts of their minds they might normally suppress. When you feel safe being vulnerable with your partner the potential for healing and growth becomes possible.

MDMA’s impact on romantic relationships - Katie Anderson

Others are stepping forward despite the law. Katie Anderson, in the Psychology Department at London South Bank University, recruited participants in a 2016 study called "MDMA: The Love Drug." She coined the term, "MDMA bubble," to describe the "protective casing" a couple enters as the substance takes hold. The sense of connectivity it offers serves as a powerful mechanism for dealing with past traumas and moving forward with confidence and clarity.

While the legislative focus has been on the dangers of drugs, deaths related to MDMA (and psychedelics generally) often occur in unstructured environments with unreliable doses and quality. In a clinical setting this is rarely the case. MDMA has been observed to "increase heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperatures," though for healthy individuals this is not a big problem, especially when the benefits include emotional clarity, navigating intimacy, bonding, self-awareness, authenticity, expanded sensitivity, and the ability to discuss sexual fantasies in a safe environment.

MDMA could prove to be a powerful antidote to the loss of the "romance period" of new relationships as it expresses the same chemistry: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Considering the DEA gave the thumbs up to clinical testing of MDMA for PTSD in 2015, there is no reason for it to remain a Schedule 1 substance. There is therapeutic utility, as the above and other research shows.

Simply put, we need it. While millennials waiting longer to get married has caused a plummet in the divorce rate, American couples still split roughly half of the time. MDMA is no silver bullet, but ever since it was synthesized many have found success using it. The fact that the DEA is loosening its grip is a step in the right direction. For individuals and couples, more steps are needed.

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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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