Theories on how and why marijuana use feels like it slows down time

Published Apr 25, 2019 01:48 p.m. ET
Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward

Anyone that has already consumed cannabis has likely experienced at some point a strange alteration in their perception of time. While there is the odd report of a user experiencing the opposite effect, that is most often time lost due to sleep that was unexpected. For the most part, cannabis and more specifically, THC has the ability to alter and slow down a person’s perception of how quickly time is passing by. Though most marijuana consumers have felt a similar sensation, it wasn’t until relatively recently that cannabis researchers began to uncover results from thorough both new studies as well as new evidence to solidify any of the current theories on why that might be.

Cannabis research on THC and its effects on time perception

These three studies are just a small look into well over 1000 reviews on endocannabinoids, THC, and CBD which all held some element that focused on the way cannabis might manipulate the way a person experiences time when they are high.

1. Cannabinoid modulation of time estimation in rats 2001

Since we can’t ask the rats how they feel about the passing of time, these types of cannabis research studies are often conducted using other methods of measurement. In this case over 100 rats were provided with various doses of THC and memory, motor, learning, and overall performance of basic tasks. THC appeared to lengthen the modal response time in almost all the subjects, but these results were not able to be confidently applied to humans and did not show perception as much as productivity levels.

2. Department of psychosis studies in 2012

In this study, Zerrin Atakan who is a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Yale University based out of the London area surveyed all known available studies on cannabis and its ability to distort time. What he found was that over 70% of those clinical trials had consumers who ingested THC experience a prolonged period, with a large variation of anywhere from one or two minutes to an entire hour of extra time reported. The problem with this cannabis research survey is that there were different methods of inhalation, massive time lapses and variations use, and varying amounts of THC administered or consumed by participants. Small sample sizes also made it difficult to say for certain the extent of the effects that marijuana use might have on the consumer’s perception.

3. Yale University 2013

Deepak D’Souza is a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and chose to elaborate on the previous study later in the year with the intentions to make a clear and measurable connection between marijuana use and the commonly perceived distortion in time. Cannabis researchers chose 44 participants who all had different levels of prior experience with consuming THC. Each one was required to complete two separate time perception tests that were performed, immediately before, during, and after a THC dosage that ranged between 0.015 mg and 0.05 mg of THC. A select few were chosen at random to conduct the same tests before, during, and after being given a placebo as a control group for comparison. The time perception quiz consisted of participants being provided a task to complete while being asked every 5-30 seconds how much time they believed had passed. The job provided was meant to keep subjects from counting themselves which might skew the results. The second portion of the test used letters that appeared across a monitor and labelled keys for participants to use to input their perceived amount of time between letters. Their results showed that all subjects who were given a dose of THC overestimated on time reports by anywhere from 15%-25%. Those who were given a placebo instead experienced no different estimates of time at any point in the study. This proved that those with THC in their system did experience a distortion that disappeared once the effects wore off.

Though these studies did confirm a time dilation experienced from marijuana use, they do not explain why this change occurs in the first place. There are a couple of different theories that thus far remain speculative at best. However, there is one that is often viewed as most likely to be fact among the cannabis research community, and it refers to studies conducted on the human brain network called the thalamocortical-circuit. This describes an area of the human brain that is believed to be essential to our perception and ability to estimate time. It also contains large amounts of cannabinoid receptors which are a critical component in our endocannabinoid systems. It’s believed that when THC is absorbed and passes through this portion of the brain, it likely when it disrupts our normal internal clocks.  

Who is more or less likely to experience a distortion in time after consuming THC?

If you are sitting somewhere reading this wondering why it doesn’t really feel like these facts apply to you, that entirely normal too. Throughout years of extensive cannabis research another common factor among patients who either do or do not experience a slowing of time. In general, marijuana use by inexperienced users is much more likely to cause this kind of lapse in judgement. Those who use cannabis or THC on a regular basis will not build a significant tolerance to THC very quickly but are able to avoid this side effect as their body adjusts to the daily intake of THC. That doesn’t mean that if you have smoked for years, you will never experience it, it only shows that you are much less likely to suffer through this sometimes-annoying side effect from using cannabis.

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