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Why Does Cannabis Slow Down Our Time Perception?

February 2, 2017
Cannabis consumers may experience distortions in their perception of time, often reporting how minutes can feel like they stretch to hours on end—an unsettling experience, to say the least. But to what degree is this a scientifically proven phenomenon?

Researchers have been curious about this question as well, and have conducted several investigations over the years probing cannabis’ strange time-altering properties. Many of these experiments have corroborated individual reports that time slows down while high, though this has largely been on the scale of seconds or minutes, not hours.

Research on Marijuana and Time Perception

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“One of the most commonly reported effects of cannabis by users is to distort the perception of time,” says Zerrin Atakan, a London-based psychiatrist who surveyed all known studies of cannabis and time distortion in 2012. “Our review of papers on the topic showed that 70% of studies found that users experienced over-estimation of time. In other words, users felt using cannabis made them feel as if the time was longer than the actual time.”

Yet, many of these studies have been rife with limitations—small sample sizes, failure to consider the effects of previous cannabis exposure, and use of delivery methods such as inhalation and oral administration that produce wide variation in THC’s effects over time, to name a few.

Later that year, a team at Yale School of Medicine sought to address these shortcomings and clear the smoke surrounding the connection between cannabis and time tripping.

“I was fascinated by the observation that some drugs can distort the experience of passing time, and that the phenomenon was not well understood,” says Deepak D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and leader of the investigation. “I was particularly intrigued by the observation that in some individuals who found the effects of cannabis unpleasant and also experienced time dilation, the overall experience was even more unpleasant.”

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In their study, 44 individuals who had varied experience with marijuana were brought into the lab and asked to complete two time perception tests before, during, and after either a THC dosage ranging from 0.015 mg/kg to 0.05 mg/kg (delivered through an IV) or a 0 mg/kg placebo. In the first test, called the time estimation task, participants were repeatedly asked to approximate how much time had passed (ranging from 5 to 30 seconds) while they completed a distraction task that prevented them from actively counting to themselves (e.g. count the number of “B’s” that appear amongst a random assortment of letters on a computer screen). In the second test, called the time production task, participants were given the same distracting assignment, but had to hold a computer key down to produce a given amount of time.

The results showed that participants who were high overestimated time by as much as 25 percent and underproduced time by up to 15 percent when compared with their sober baseline levels. Meanwhile, those who received a placebo showed no significant difference in time estimation or production as compared with their own baseline levels.

“Marijuana dilates time—that is, five minutes is experienced as ten minutes,” says D’Souza. “So the subjective experience is that time is passing slowly—but that feeling can only occur if the internal clock is speeded up.”

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In summary, those with THC in their system experienced a speeding up of their internal, subjective time—making them feel as if external, objective time passed more slowly. After they sobered up, however, these effects disappeared.

These clock-accelerating effects of THC have also been mirrored in animal experiments. In a 2001 study, for example, rats who were given chemicals that activated their cannabinoid receptors showed time underproduction similar to behavior seen in humans, while rodents that received a chemical blocking these receptors showed time overproduction. Similar results have been observed in monkeys, as well.

What Factors Influence Time Dilation?

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How exactly does cannabis press the accelerator on our internal clocks?

“This is quite a mystery,” and any hypotheses about a precise mechanism are speculative, says D’Souza.

However, previous studies have shown that a brain network called the thalamo-cortico-striatal circuit is integral to our perception of time. This collection of brain areas is also known to contain a large number of cannabinoid receptors. So when THC from cannabis floods the brain, it could disrupt the normal functioning of these receptors, resulting in distorted time perception.

Do these effects vary based on how frequently you consume cannabis?

Further analyses from D’Souza and his team revealed that these time-distorting effects were particularly strong amongst those who rarely consumed, with medium and high doses leading to temporal overestimation and all doses resulting in temporal underproduction. Meanwhile, frequent consumers (2 to 3 times a week or more) experienced no significant repercussions on their time perception regardless of the amount of THC in their systems. They were immune to cannabis’s time-twisting effects.

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The researchers have offered several potential explanations for these results. Although frequent users don’t develop a tolerance to the euphoric effects of THC, previous studies have shown that regular use can blunt THC’s perception-altering effects as well the sensitivity of our body’s receptors to the chemical. Thus, those who use cannabis consistently may eventually develop a biological tolerance to the drug’s effects on time perception.

Another possibility is that regular users might have learned that cannabis tends to have this effect on their sense of time and consequently “re-calibrated” their internal clocks accordingly. Yet, an individual would likely have to spend more time under the influence than not in order to produce these effects. They would also demonstrate abnormal timekeeping when sober, which the subjects in the 2012 study did not show.

What Implications Do These Effects Have?

But if cannabis only warps time by a few seconds, what’s the big deal?

“Given that timing is everything, there is no action or behavior which does not require precision of timing, says Atakan. “So if timing is disrupted via cannabis use, this may have important implications on normal functioning.”

“Many basic human behaviors rely on temporal judgments in the seconds to minutes range,” adds D’Souza. “For example, deciding when to cross the street based on perceptions of approaching traffic, following a beat in a musical composition, or returning to the stove just prior to the tea kettle whistling.”

While the distorting effects of cannabis may seem trivial and might just be used as a creative (and potentially unpleasant) strategy to squeeze some extra time out of your day, there could be significant hazards associated with a slightly altered time perception. A disrupted internal clock while driving or operating heavy machinery, for instance, might result in impaired decision-making that could have life or death consequences.

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Although research has shed some light on the time-warping effects of cannabis, we are still far from fully understanding its impact on time perception.

“There are not yet enough studies to provide more detailed information on the topic,” says Atakan. “More research with robust methods is required to reach conclusions about the precise effect of cannabis and its active compounds on time perception.”

In future studies, researchers hope to use advanced imaging technology to learn more about how brain circuits involved in timekeeping are impacted by cannabis and whether these distortion effects might be seen at the scale of milliseconds or minutes.

But that future could be a long way off…or it at least can seem to be if you’re high.

Adam Hoffman's Bio Image

Adam Hoffman

Adam is a freelance science writer living in Brooklyn. He grew up in the Bay Area, where he developed a profound love of fog and tacos. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Health Magazine, and STAT News.

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  • snow_watcher

    I’ve always been fascinated with the time distortion effect from cannabis.

    But intravenous THC, yeesh. That I ain’t for me. Love the flower.

    • Brian Ames

      I totally agree… I’ve often wondered if the time dilation effect isn’t somehow related to the fact (that at least for me) cannabis really gets my awareness and brain going. You know, the sudden epephanies, figuring out the mysteries of the universe… But then, unfortunately, forgetting them the next day.

      Yeah, IV THC sounds a-bit sketchy. Though it is something that my curiosity begs I try sometime 🙂

      Also love the bud pic, downloaded onto my phone yo!

  • iconoclastastic

    I definitely feel this effect – for me it’s a huge positive.
    I’m constantly amazed by my friends and family lamenting ‘doesn’t time fly?’
    ‘No’ I always think. It doesn’t. I have all the time in the world 🙂

    Yes I’m a daily user.
    No I don’t have any problems with time-keeping.

    • Dr Negative

      I smoke daily aswell and have done for over 10 years and time speeds up for me while stoned my days go by much quicker.

      • dinges65

        That might be just because you’re bored when not high. Not necessarily the effect mentioned in the article.

        With “time dilatation”, and you get quickly tolerance for that, while using, your days should seem to last for an eternity. But still, they won’t seem boring. Amusing and taking a very very long time.

  • rowrbazzle

    When my wife and I go out for a walk after smoking, we always joke about “the endless journey.” We even came up with an idea for a cable show called “Stoned and Lost,” where we would walk a block from any given location and then become worried and confused about where we were and how long we had been walking (but the endings would always be happy). The few times I’ve driven in the past after smoking (I try not to), I have sometimes felt that I have more time to make critical decisions, because everything seems to be happening in slow motion. It would be interesting to talk to stoners who smoked regularly and performed repetitive motion tasks, operated heavy equipment, etc. while high, to see if they had been aware of putting themselves at risk.

    • Scoot Manoeuvre

      I vape every day and I have enphzema, I would like to know more about the effects if any it has on lungs ect?

      • rowrbazzle

        Unlike tobacco, cannabis has not been scientifically associated with lung cancer. However, anything you take into your lungs (aside from pure fresh air) can be considered as an irritant. Vaping is certainly preferable to smoking, but it would probably still have some small effect on your emphysema. I have COPD, and I sometimes notice a little lung congestion after I vape or smoke. I never used edibles until recently, because they were never available, but I find that a square or two of chocolate (depending upon the concentration) can produce long-lasting, pleasant results. You might want to consider that.

        • Scoot Manoeuvre

          Thanks for answering,and I agree . As for the chocolate, that is a good excuse for my addiction to midnight snacks

          • rowrbazzle

            One thing about the edibles that I’m still getting used to — the effect depends on your size, your metabolism, what’s in your digestive tract, how long since you’ve eaten, etc. And you can usually count on an hour delay before you notice any effect. So if you took a chocolate square as a midnight snack, you might be laying in bed a couple of hours later, thinking genius thoughts but not getting much sleep. Depends upon the strain used in the bar, too. Apparently, you can get various types of bars (sativa, hybrid, indica) at a good legal dispensary.

          • Scoot Manoeuvre

            Unfortunately I’m in Australia

    • dinges65

      I like to play some online racing games. I get the best record times when high. I know I’m not the ony one, most gamer-records are set while high, because of reaction speed.

      I have some tolerance and don’t get time dilatation every time I use, but when it happens, I see the track in slow motion in front of me and feel and am able to take the optimal racing lines reliably. Also learning new tracks is easier (you always have to practice and repractice the same track to get decent lap times).

      In (semi-)pro gaming, using cannabis is considered cheating because of this.

      Drinking is fine and not considered cheating, as it will reliably make you play worse.

  • Dr Negative

    While stoned, time speeds up for me….. I’v smoked for over a decade.

    • frankgrimes78

      I’ve been smoking since I was 14, turn 39 next month. You are correct, it does speed up time. For medical users, the only instance when time slows is when you don’t have your medication, that’s what I & others I’ve discussed this with have come to accept.
      For example, in Canada, we have legal medical pot right? Well thanks to foreign owned “Licensed producers” that bribed their way into a monopoly, I have lots of instances where even though I do everything right, my package gets lost in the mail, or they don’t have anything worth buying, etc. With PTSD, & digestive disorder it makes time slow like crazy without my medication. Dispensaries keep getting closed down because our new leader who promised legal with within 2 yrs MAX has gone back on that because he’s been bribed by the LP’s to stop the dispensaries from selling their higher quality weed & putting them out of business.
      So long story short, I agree with you. Take care Dr!

      • Gbop

        Not only them but Radiology And Radiologist have a lot to lose if everyone using cannabis instead of there super mutant Chemotherapy really thobwhat is theraputic about Radiation any way? Hello. hahah lol lil fallout humor but damn that game is ill and But the War on Medicinal Plants/Veg/Herbs, Chemical Syntheics Medicines ,Nuclear War and Radiation is realer than ever presently.😵

    • Gbop

      The time around you is slowed buy yes you your soul is warped into awareness overdrive Happy 420🙋🙏✌💪✊

  • SAINT Brand Cannabis

    In my experiments, time stopped for hours – and so did I. 😉

    How does all this work you ask? There are very few if any CB1 receptors in the brain stem. While in the cerebellum – the part of the brain responsible for voluntary muscle coordination and movement – there is a plurality…a concentrated plurality…of CB1 receptors. The result if THC is introduced in a specific quantity and quality… down you go, quickly, safely, and for hours.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/patented-cannabinoid-formulation-sedation-human-charles-ankner-cp?trk=mp-reader-card

  • Ken Mann

    In my experience, cannabis stops the constant chatter in my brain about what I have to or need to do; and what I did. With that gone (or relegated to the background) I’m able to focus on and savor all sensory experiences. It’s like time hits the pause button.

  • DonKilo

    hmmm.. Interesting. as @snow mentioned I’ve always been fascinated with the time distortion effect from cannabis, as well. Also find it interesting because I get those affects and my friend says she doesn’t.

  • Gbop

    So we live longer healthier Lives . Longevity✌🙏👍💯😵😁🙋

  • chris

    Makes me wonder how different perception of time is between one human and another. Maybe my second is faster than yours. It would be hard to discern that aberration as we have no way of measuring.

    • Nikki

      Kind of like the question about whether we perceive colors the same ? What about sound, feel, taste ? 😀

  • J.D.

    For me (an infrequent user), the time distortion is HUGE, and it’s the most noticeable effect.

    But I notice that time doesn’t slow down that much at the *micro* level. For instance, I can look at a stopwatch and the ticking of the seconds doesn’t seem much slower than in normal life. It’s at the *macro* level that the effect happens. I can look at the stopwatch and seconds seem to tick away like normal, but after 120 of them have ticked off, it feels like I’ve been busy at this task not for two minutes but for half an hour.

    So I think it’s more of a case of THC making the memory of recent events seem like a long time ago. A period of time that to a sober person feels like a single experience, feels like a fractured series of disconnected experiences to someone stoned.

  • LurkingCrassZero

    My theory is cannabis doesn’t distort our time perception, it rids us of it. It lets us experience the eternal moment, which is all that truly exists. Einstein even said that time was just a very persistent illusion.

  • Bigrob

    I can actually explain this using a model I made that would predict this effect. It’s just all theory of course. But the model I made would explain this effect as a side effect from the minds processing ability being raised. That would cause the mind to be tricked that more time has passed than it actually has. Due to how much information is being sent into short term memory. It seems that could be the speed that we experience time. A rate of information is the constant that we normally connect process and store information.

    Most likely due to the extra connections made in the brain by the cannabis interconnecting areas that don’t normally communicate. Bumping up the connection rate so your brain is overclocked in a way and it warps the perception of time. And the reverse is also true. I have had very hard indicas that slowed me down so much that time was just vanishing before my eyes. I felt like I had been playing this one game for half an hour. Seems I was playing for a few hours and had no clue.

    So the brains processing speed was slowed down. Taking longer to process information into the short term memory. And it warps the perception of time. I have had strains that make time faster or slower for me. Pretty wild! =).

  • Bigrob

    I can actually explain this using a model I made that would predict this effect. It’s just all theory of course. But the model I made would explain this effect as a side effect from the minds processing ability being raised. That would cause the mind to be tricked that more time has passed than it actually has. Due to how much information is being sent into short term memory. It seems that could be the speed that we experience time. A rate of information is the constant that we normally connect process and store information.

    Most likely due to the extra connections made in the brain by the cannabis interconnecting areas that don’t normally communicate. Bumping up the connection rate so your brain is overclocked in a way and it warps the perception of time. And the reverse is also true. I have had very hard indicas that slowed me down so much that time was just vanishing before my eyes. I felt like I had been playing this one game for half an hour. Seems I was playing for a few hours and had no clue.

    So the brains processing speed was slowed down. Taking longer to process information into the short term memory. And it warps the perception of time. I have had strains that make time faster or slower for me. Pretty wild! =).