An empathogen (a term that means producing empathy) is a psychoactive drug that induces social and emotional effects such as empathy and a desire for social bonding. The best-known empathogen is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), also known by street names Ecstasy, XTC, E, X, and Adam. MDMA is chemically similar to methamphetamine (a stimulant) and mescaline (a hallucinogen). It has energizing effects; can produce euphoria and distortions in time and perceptions; increase enjoyment of tactile experiences; decrease fear and anxiety; and create a sense of intimacy with others. MDMA was developed in Germany in the early 1900s as a compound to synthesize other pharmaceuticals. Although it had never undergone formal clinical testing, in the 1970s, some psychiatrists began using MDMA as a psychotherapeutic tool (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006). Because of its ability to reduce anxiety and lower defensiveness, MDMA was perceived to enhance communication in therapy sessions (e.g., couples therapy). Currently studies are exploring the potential use of MDMA in treating posttraumatic stress disorder (Ruse, Jerome, Mithoefer, Dobln, & Gibson, 2008).

MDMA and other empathogens are included in the category “club drugs”—psychoactive drugs used recreationallyat nightclubs or raves (weekend-long dance parties). Besides MDMA, common club drugs include GHB (soap), Rohypnol (roofies), ketamine (Vitamin K), methamphetamine (speed), and acide (LSD). When used recreationally, MDMA is rarely used alone. It is often used together with substances such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other clubs (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006, 2008).

MDMA affects the brain by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) serotonin, dopamine, and norepinphrine. Some animal research indicates that MDMA may also activate neurons that contain oxytocin, which is thought to increase sociability and bonding behaviors (Thompson, Callaghan, Hunt, Cornish, & McGregor, 2007). Side effects of MDMA may include anxiety, agitation, nausea, chils, clenching of jaws or grinding of teeth (bruxis), muscle cramping, and blurred vision. MDMA overdose can result in high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks, loss of consciousness, and seizures. MDMA taken in conjunction with vigorous physical activity (e.g., dancing for many hours) can cause hyperthermia (a marked increase in body temperature); without prompt medical attention, this can result in high blood pressure, dehydration, kidney failure, and heart failure. Some tablets sold as Ecstasy contain other drugs such as methamphetamine, caffeine, dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), ephedrine (a diet drug), or cocaine. The combination of MDMA and iprindole (a tricyclic antidepressant) can be fatal. Animal studies have demonstrated that MDMA taken during pregnancy can affect the brain of the developing fetus and have significant adverse effects on tests of memory and learning (Broening, Morford, Inman-Wood, Fukumura, & Vorhees, 2001). More research is needed to determine the effects of MDMA on the developing human fetus. After the effects of MDMA have worn off, MDMA users may experience anxiety, restlessness, irritability, aggression, sadness, sleep and appetite disturbances, decreased interest in sex, confusion, and impairment of attention and working memory (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006).

Another empathogen is MDA (Tenamfetamine), also known as the love drug. It was investigated as a possible treatment for Parkinson’s disease in 1941 and as an antidepressant, cough suppressant, and appetite suppressant in the 1950s and 1960s. in 1953, Harold Blauer died of an MDA overdosein a U.S. army experiment into the use of MDA as a possible truth serum (Erowid, n.d.). MDA appeared as a recreational drug around 1963. MDA is more toxic than MDMA and can cause overstimulation of the central nervous system. MDMA analogs (offshoots), such as 4-MTA (also known as Flatliners and Golden Eagles), continue to be developed. MDMA analogs, sometimes sold as MDMA, are considered designer drugs. Designer drugs, often developed in an attempt to circumvent existing drug laws, may be riskier than better known substances because limited research has been done to understand their toxicology and pharmacology, and their development and manufacture may bypass typical safety standards. In the United States, the Treatment of Controlled Substance Analogues section of the Controlled Substances Act (1986) makes it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess many designer drugs, including MDMA analogs. According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSIDUH), about 860,000 people over the age of 12 in the United States used MDMA for the first time in 2006, an increase from 615,000 first-time users in 2005. Most new users (70.1%) were 18 years or older; average age of first-time use in 2006 was 20.6 years of age. The Monitoring the Future Survey showed that past-year MDMA abuse among 12th graders in the United States increased from 3.0 percent in 2005 to 4.5 percent in 2007. In 2007, 6.5 percent of 12th graders reported using MDMA at some point in their lives (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2008).

  • Broening, H.W., Morford, L.L., Inman-Wood, S.L., Fukumura, M., & Vorhees, C.V. (2001). 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy)-induced learning and memory impairments depend on the age of exposure during early development. Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 3228 – 3235.
  • Ruse, J.M., Jerome, L., Mithoefer, M.C., Doblin, R., & Gibson, E. (2008). MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: A revised teaching manual draft.
  • Thompson, M.R., Callaghan, P.D., Hunt, G.E., Cornish, J.L., & McGregor, I.S. (2007). A role for oxytocin and 5-HT(IA) receptors in the prosocial effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”). Neuroscience, 146, 509 – 514.
  • Since cognitive science Opens in new window has taken on board this commonsense view of the mind, an important question is how such a relationship to a proposition can be implemented.

    The representation theory of mind (RTM; Field, 1978; Fodor, 1978) assumes that a propositional attitude consists in holding a representation of the proposition and that this representation plays a certain functional role in the economy of mental states. This can be best illustrated with the two core concepts: belief and desire.

    These are core concepts, since knowing what someone believes (thinks) to be the case (e.g., Max thinking the chocolate is in the cupboard and thinking that going there will get the chocolate into his possession) and what that person desires (wants) (e.g., Max wanting the chocolate to be in his possession) allows us to make a behavioral prediction that Max will approach the cupboard. This kind of inference is known since Aristotle as the practical syllogism.

    Searle (1983, after Anscombe, 1957) points out that these two states are mirror images in terms of causal direction and direction of fit. The function of a belief is to be caused by reality and the believed proposition should match reality.

    For instance, the chocolate being in the cupboard should be responsible for Max’s believing that the chocolate is in the cupboard (world to mind causation) and the proposition “the chocolate is in the cupboard” should thus match the relevant state of affairs in the world (mind should fit world).

    The function of desire (want) is to cause a change in the world (mind to world causation) so that the world conforms to the desired proposition (world should fit mind)—for example, if Max wants the chocolate to be in the cupboard, then this desire should cause action leading to a change of the chocolate’s location such that it conforms to what Max desires.

    This trivial-sounding example does highlight the important distinctions.

    Three Important Distinctions

    1. First vs. Third Person

    One important distinction is between first-person and third-person attribution of mental states. A third-person attribution is an attribution to another person and a first-person attribution is one to myself.

    For instance, if Max erroneously believes that the chocolate is still in the cupboard (because he didn’t see that it was unexpectedly put into the drawer), then a third-person observer will attribute a false belief to Max. In contrast, Max himself will make a first-person attribution of knowledge to himself.

    The observer can capture this difference between her own and Max’s subjective view by the second-order attribution that Max thinks he knows where the chocolate is. This is useful to keep in mind when it comes to false memories. Since a memory can only be a recollection of something that actually occurred, a false memory is not a memory by third-person attribution, although it is by first-person attribution.

    1. Sense and Reference

    A related second point has to do with Frege’s (1892/1960) distinction between sense and reference. Since mental states involve representations, they connect us to objects and events in the real (or a possible) world.

    Famously, Oedipus knew and married Iocaste (referent: a particular person), but he did not know or marry her as his mother but as an unrelated queen (sense: how Iocaste was presented to Oedipus’ mind).

    Thus, in third-person parlance we can say that Oedipus married his mother if we use the expression “his mother” to pick out (refer to) the individual whom he married without implying that he knew Iocaste under that description. In first-person description of the event Oedipus would not have used the descriptor “my mother.”

    These distinctions are useful to keep in mind when discussing infants’ ability to remember particular events: Whenever a memory trace of a unique event can be demonstrated then one can conclude (in first-person parlance) as a particular event—that is, that the infant makes cognitive distinctions that represent that event as a particular event.

    1. Having vs. Representing a Mental State

    The third important distinction is that between being in a mental state (or having an attitude) and representing that mental state.

    For understanding or knowing that a person is in a mental state, or to reflect on one’s own mental states, one has to be able to represent that state. In order to be able to represent a state, one needs a concept of that state—that is, a rich enough theory of mind.

    The study of how children acquire the requisite theory of mind is therefore essential for our understanding of how children come to understand memory. Furthermore, since some memorial states are reflective or self-referential, children need a theory of mind for being in such states or having such memories.

    Why We Need a Theory of Mind for Memory

    We probably do not need a theory of mind for implicit (nondeclarative Opens in new window) memory, but for explicit (declarative Opens in new window) memory we do, since “explicit memory is revealed when performance on a task requires conscious recollection of previous experiences.” (Schacter, 1987).

    To be conscious of a fact one requires to be also aware of the state with which one beholds that fact. The higher-order-thought theories of consciousness make this their core claim (Armstrong, 1980; Rosenthal, 1986).

    For instance, if one sees a state of affairs X (e.g., that the chocolate is in the cupboard), then this seeing is a first-order mental state (attitude).

    To be conscious of this state of affairs means, according to theory, that one entertains a second-order thought about the seeing—that is, the second-order thought represents the first-order seeing.

    A weaker version does not require that one has to entertain the second-order thought, but only that one has to have the potential for having the second-order thought (Carruthers, 1996). That some such condition must be true can be seen from the following consideration:

    “Could it ever be that I can genuinely claim that I am consciously aware of the chocolate being in the cupboard, but claim ignorance of the first-order mental state by which I behold this state of affairs—that is, by claiming that I have no clue as to whether I see, or just think of, or want the chocolate being in the cupboard?”

    The important point of these conceptual analyses is that to be conscious of some fact requires some minimal concept of knowledge or of some perceptual state like seeing.

    Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence when children understand a minimal state of this sort. There is some evidence of understanding (mother’s) emotional reactions and seeing (direction of gaze) in the first year of life (see Perner, 1991, chap. 6; Baldwin & Moses, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997, for summaries and discussion of problems of interpretation).

    There is also some recent evidence that between 8 and 12 months children might be inferring people’s intentions to grasp an object from where that person looks (Spelke, Philips, & Woodward, 1995) and even between 5 to 9 months from how a person touches an object (seemingly intentional or accidentally).

    And by 18 months (where children’s understanding of mental phenomena seems to flourish in general) children imitate people’s intended actions even when they observe a failed attempt (Meltzoff, 1955a) and they understand differences in preferences (e.g., that someone else can prefer cauliflower over biscuits, Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997).

    Evidence that children distinguish their knowledge from ignorance is available at a relatively late age. Povinelli, Perilloux, and Bierschwale (1993) asked children to look for a sticker under one of three cups.

    Children were first trained to look under the cup at which the experimenter had pointed. After some training even the youngest were able to do this.

    When asked to look without the experimenter pointing, an interesting developmental difference emerged. Children older than 2 years and 4 months acted without hesitation when they knew which the cup the sticker was under, but hesitated noticeably when—in the absence of the experimenter’s poining—they had to guess where it was.

    Interestingly this is also the age at which children start using the phrase “I don’t know” (Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983). In contrast, children younger than that showed no comparable difference in reaction time. This may indicate that young 2-year-olds do not yet reflect on what they do and do not know.

    So, theory of mind research is not yet able to give a guideline for when infants might develop explicit, conscious memories. Memory development may help out on this point.

    Meltzoff (1985, 1995b) demonstrated that 14-month-old infants can reenact a past event (e.g., they imitate the experimenter leaning forward to touch a panel with forehead so that panel lights up) after several months. Recently this has been demonstrated in 11-month-olds with a delay of 3 months.

    Since this is achieved from a brief observational period and does not require prolonged learning, and since patients with amnesia cannot do this (McDonough, Mandler, KcKee, & Squire, 1995), it is tempting to conclude that such enactment demonstrates explicit, conscious memory.

    One should, though, keep in mind that delayed imitation that is based on a single event (third-person view) is not to be equated with a memory (knowledge) of that event as a single, past event (first-person view).

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      Adapted from: The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Authored by ENDEL TULVING (ED.), Fergus I. M. Craik