Marijuana and The Slowdown of Time Perception

“Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”

            Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, English novelist (1775 – 1817)


Charles Baudelaire, Hurled Away by a Stream of Ideas

The phenomenon of a slowed down perception of time during a high is one of the most well known effects of marijuana – infamous to some, highly valued by others. Of course, those “distortions of time perception” can be seen solely as a risk for users – and it is certainly true that those perceptual distortions during a high can become dangerous, for example, while driving a car. On the other hand, many users appreciate this change of perception in safe situations as one of the most valuable experiences during a marijuana high. We have detailed reports about the slowdown of time already coming from members of the “Club des Hashischins” (“Club of the Hasheesh Eaters). The members of this cannabis club ingested large doses of hash marmalade, so it comes as no surprise that many of them became familiar with this phenomenon that shows especially under stronger doses. Charles Baudelaire, one the founding members of the club, wrote:

“… a new stream of ideas carries you away: it will hurl you along in its living vortex for a further minute; and this minute, too, will be an eternity, for the normal relation between time and the individual has been completely upset by the multitude and intensity of sensations and ideas. You seem to live several men’s lives in the space of an hour.” [1]

Charles Baudelaire
Hashish User Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867


Baudelaire’s statement already hints at two effects of marijuana that I believe to be relevant of the subjective effect of a slowdown of time perception. He describes something a friend of mine once called “mind-racing” during a high: “a stream of ideas … will hurl you along … and the individual has been completely upset by the multitude (…) of sensations and ideas”. Baudelaire further notes the “intensity” of sensations and ideas that “hurl you along”. In my view, this intensity of experience could also come from what I have called “hyperfocussing” during a high. When high, we hyperfocus on sensations, thoughts or our imaginations and often forget about what is going on around us. Whatever comes into focus becomes more intense. We know a similar but more subtle effect from our everyday experience: When you close your eyes and take time to focus on the taste of ice-cream melting in your mouth, your taste experience gets more intense; you also perceive more details. A forced focus of attention always brings more intensity to whatever we attend to.


Fitz Hugh Ludlow in Eternity

In his famous book “The Hasheesh Eater” (1857), the American author Fitz Hugh Ludlow gave us an even more detailed description of the effect of the perceptual slowdown of time during a strong high. Like Baudelaire, Ludlow also ingested large doses of hasheesh and was also completely absorbed by his intense imaginations and streams of thought during his high:

“The thought struck me that I would compare my time with other people’s. I looked at my watch, found that its minute hand stood at the quarter mark past eleven, and, returning it to my pocket, abandoned myself to reflections. Presently, I saw myself a gnome imprisoned (…) in the Domdaniel caverns, “under the roots of the ocean”. Here (…) was I doomed to hold the lamp that lit that abysmal darkness, while my heart, like a giant clock, ticked solemnly the remaining years of time. Now, this hallucination departing, I heard in the solitude of the night outside the sound of a wondrous heaving sea. Its waves in sublime cadence, rolled forward till they met the foundations of the building; (…) Now, through the street, with measured thread, an armed host passed by. The heavy beat of their footfall and the grinding of their brazen corslet rings alone broke the silence (…). And now, in another life, I remembered the fact that far back in the cycles I had looked at my watch to measure the time which I passed. (…) The minute hand stood half way between fifteen and sixteen minutes past eleven. The watch must have stopped; I held it to my ear, no, it was still going. I had traveled through all that immeasurable chain of dreams in thirty seconds. “My god!” I cried, “I am in eternity.” [2]


Hasheesh User Fitz Hugh Ludlow, 1836-1870
Hasheesh User Fitz Hugh Ludlow, 1836-1870

“Mindracing”, Hyperfocussing, and Associative Leaps

Like Baudelaire, we can see how Ludlow’s mind is racing. He is going through so many associative chains of thought and detailed imaginations that it feels to him like a long time must have been passed since he began his reverie. Usually, he would need hours or days to go through those detailed reflections which actually only lasted for 30 seconds. Also, similar to Baudelaire, Ludlow describes that he is completely absorbed by his thoughts; in other words, he hyperfocuses on an inner stream of thought and, thus, does not pay attention to other processes around him that are unfolding in real time. Both accelerated thinking – or, as I like to call it, “mindracing”, as well as the hyperfocus of attention, then, are described in Ludlow’s report of a radical slowdown of his perception of time.

Ludlow’s story, however, adds another interesting aspect to Baudelaire’s report: His illustrious associative “chain of dreams” is not only detailed and long, but it is also “jumpy”: with various associative leaps, he jumps from one detailed imagined situation to another (“Now … and now .. and now..”). The unusual associative leaps, which are often reported about a high, probably add to his subjective feeling that he ‘mind-travelled’ a long distance, much longer than he would usually do in 30 seconds or even in 30 hours.

According to the reports above, the slowdown of time perception could then arise out of the effects of marijuana to lead to an attentional hyperfocus of the perceiver on an unusually accelerated stream of thoughts, a stream characterized by ‘jumpy’ associative thoughts or imaginations.

It is of course possible that marijuana has an even more direct neurological effect on the way we perceive time. Neuroscientists are beginning to better understand the neural substrates of interval timing, and it seems that these areas are abundant with cannabinoid receptors.[3] However, as far as I can see, we have so far no clear understanding on the exact involvement of the cannabinoids in time perception.


The Uses of Time Slowdown

This account of the perceptual slowdown of time during a high would explain why many users of marijuana appreciate the effect of a perceptual time slowdown so much. With their racing and concentrated mind, users often find themselves to be better able to appreciate the subtleties and depths of immediate sensations. For them, the subjective slowdown of time is not merely a perceptual distortion, but can become a real mind enhancement.

Peter Tosh
Reggae Singer Peter Tosh with Robbie Shakespeare on the Bush Doctor tour, 1978

Arguably, the slowdown of time perception during a high played a fundamental role in the evolution of jazz music and in the evolution of other musical genres like that of reggae. I discuss the role of marijuana in the early evolution of jazz in my essay, “Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz.”

Joyful experiences like eating a great meal, looking at a beautiful piece of art, or skiing down a mountain seem wonderfully prolonged. In his magnificent essay “Mr. X” featured in Lester Grinspoon’s book “Marijuana Reconsidered”, an anonymous author wrote:

“The actual duration of orgasm seems to lengthen greatly, but this may be the usual experience of time expansion which comes with cannabis smoking.”[4]

Lester Grinspoon would reveal the identity of the author after his untimely death; it was his best friend Carl Sagan.

The slowdown of time perception can be used for relaxation, to step outside the ever-accelerating speed of the demands and routines of our modern everyday lives, and to simply enjoy being in the here-and-now of existence. Countless users seek this perceptual slowdown to appreciate seemingly endless moments in which they can taste incredible details and nuances in a great wine, hear the endlessly complex and soothing sounds of gentle waves washing upon a beach at night or to go on a seemingly infinite voyage during lovemaking. And, as the psychoanalytic Erich Fromm once said:

“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.”

[1]  Baudelaire, Charles (1860) “Le Poème du Haschisch”, in: Artificial Paradises, Citadel, 1998.

[2]    Ludlow, Fitz Hugh (1857/2009). The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean. Chapter II: “Under the shadows of Esculapius.”­penthes/Ludlow/THE/index.html

[3]    Atakan et al. (2012), “The effects of cannabis on perception of time: a critical review.” Curr. Pharm. Des., 18(32):4915-22.

[4]    Grinspoon, Lester (1971), Marijuana Reconsidered, Harvard University Press, Harvard, p.126.


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