Two years ago, Brendan, an ex-leader of a white nationalist group, experienced a significant shift in his radical views after participating in a University of Chicago study involving MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly). Harriet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the university, conducted the experiment to explore MDMA's role in enhancing the enjoyment of social touch. She was unaware that a white supremacist had participated in her study until after it concluded.
Previously, Brendan had been a member of a notorious Midwest white nationalist group. Before the study, he lost his job when his affiliation was exposed by a Chicago-based antifascist group. Even his siblings and friends who weren't involved in white nationalism distanced themselves from him. However, an intensely personal experience during the study prompted Brendan to rethink his supremacist beliefs, leading him to stress the value of love and connection.
De Wit was now very worried. She'd just given a drug to a disgraced white supremacist, she realised, and had apparently inspired him to do who knows what out in the world. "Go ask him what he means by 'I now know what I need to do,'" she instructed Bremmer. "If it's a matter of him picking up an automatic rifle or something, we have to intervene."
A murderous spree turned out to be the opposite of what Brendan had in mind. As he clarified to Bremmer, love is what he had just realised he had to do. "Love is the most important thing," he told the baffled research assistant. "Nothing matters without love."
In late 2021, Nuwer visited Brendan to learn from "the horse's mouth" about the experience:
About 30 minutes after taking the pill, he started to feel peculiar. "Wait a second – why am I doing this? Why am I thinking this way?" he began to wonder. "Why did I ever think it was okay to jeopardise relationships with just about everyone in my life?"
Just then, Bremmer came to collect Brendan to start the experiment. Brendan slid into an MRI, and Bremmer started tickling his forearm with a brush and asked him to rate how pleasant it felt. "I noticed it was making me happier – the experience of the touch," Brendan recalled. "I started progressively rating it higher and higher." As he relished in the pleasurable feeling, a single, powerful word popped into his mind: connection.
It suddenly seemed so obvious: connections with other people were all that mattered. "This is stuff you can't really put into words, but it was so profound," Brendan said. "I conceived of my relationships with other people not as distinct boundaries with distinct entities, but more as we-are-all-one. I realised I'd been fixated on stuff that doesn't really matter, and is just so messed up, and that I'd been totally missing the point. I hadn't been soaking up the joy that life has to offer."
The piece goes into how Brendan's big turnaround sparked questions about how MDMA could play a part in encouraging shifts in thinking. It also notes that Brendan still struggles with making connections and "has not completely abandoned his bigoted ideology." It's a good read: How a dose of MDMA transformed a white supremacist.