Why It's So Hard To Keep Track Of Time When You're High

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
By Nikki Sen
Most weed users experience a distortion in the way they perceive the passing of time. In particular, this tends to make time slow wayyy down — to the point where you constantly think you're going to be late for work. Or it may just make it hard for you to really know how much time has gone by while you've been catching up on this season of Fargo.
But, as common as this time-warping experience is, researchers are just beginning to understand how it happens — and why only some people feel it.
The Slowing Down Of Time
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As with all mind-altering substances, every individual’s experience is deeply personal and unique. Something like this can never truly be objective.
But a wide majority of cannabis users do agree that they experience a slowdown in their time perception under the influence of marijuana. In fact, the phenomenon is probably one of the effects of cannabis that users enjoy most. For example, artists use marijuana to find extra time and presence of mind in the moment. Sometimes users enjoy the time distortion simply because they find the slow pace to be relaxing.
The most logical explanation for this effect is that you are more “in the present” under the effect of marijuana. You become hyper-focused on what’s going on in your head — your thoughts, ideas, and imagination. It becomes very easy to get wrapped up in your own mental activity, so you lose track of time.
While high, you also notice more of what's happening around you; your senses experience the details much more vividly. Visual scenes seem to have more depth. Even sound becomes multi-dimensional. And that heightened sense perception makes it feel as if time has slowed down — almost as if you've been given extra time to notice and experience all the details.
On the other hand, this distortion can become very dangerous. That's because various basic human behaviors rely on temporal judgments in short periods of time (e.g. calculating when to cross the street without being hit by oncoming traffic).
Even basic day-to-day activities and tasks like driving a car or cooking require accurate time perception. But in a safe environment, most users appreciate and value the change in time perception they experience while high.
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What Does Science Have To Say?
A 2013 study published in the journal Psychopharmacology examined the effects of THC on time perception. The researchers found that participants who had been given THC consistently overestimated the amount of time that had gone by during counting tasks.
In particular, subjects were told to count the number of Bs they saw on a screen over a random period of time ranging from five to 30 seconds. Afterwards, the researchers asked the participants to estimate how much time had gone by. Those who had received THC estimated overestimated the amount of time that had passed by about 25%. Interestingly, the study did not find that the changes in time perception had any connection to the amount of THC participants were given.
However, the effect of cannabis on people’s sense of time was less pronounced in frequent cannabis users, as opposed to infrequent users. That's especially interesting because frequent smokers don’t develop tolerance to the euphoria or the high of THC. This suggests regular cannabis users develop tolerance toward certain effects of cannabis use, but not others.
Why It Happens
Studies have found various explanations for the change in time perception. As you might expect, there’s a lot going on in your body when you're high: The THC from cannabis floods the brains and changes the normal functioning of neurotransmitter receptors. This can result in distortion in time perception in more ways than one.
So, in general, the presence of cannabinoids triggers changes in the ways neurons communicate. One explanation is that the increased production of certain neurotransmitters — most notably the excitatory chemical glutamate — leads to changes in how we perceive and experience time. But it's still not totally clear.
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What's Left To Uncover?
Unfortunately, there hasn't been too much research in this area. Based on the research that has been done, we know the time-warping effects of THC are real. But we’re still far from understanding how those effects actually happen. We need more research with robust methods to reach more thorough conclusions about this phenomenon.
Future studies will help us understand how this effect differs between different users and under different circumstances. And researchers also hope to investigate how your memory and ability to pay attention to your environment might impact the way you experience time while high.
A version of this article originally appeared on Green Rush Daily.
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Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that marijuana usage continues to be an offense under Federal Law, regardless of state marijuana laws.
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