The stoner stereotype suggests that chronic weed smokers seem ‘slower’ than the Average Joe; a theory that has led to the erroneous belief that marijuana lowers your IQ. As far as time is concerned, units of measurement such as minutes, hours and days are unquestionably human constructs. However, there is no question that time does pass, seemingly linearly, and the aging process reduces even the strongest individuals into weaker ones over the course of decades.
When you are stoned, time appears to pass far more slowly or more quickly than when you are sober. Of course, marijuana doesn’t actually slow down or speed up time. Rather, it alters your perception of time, which is a different thing entirely. In the case of weed users, they usually underestimate the amount of time that passes — bad news if you have a job interview that day!
In any regard, in this article we try and get to the bottom of the question “why does weed slow down time.” It may take a little complex neurochemistry knowledge to fully understand the process, but we’ll do our best to explain.
How Marijuana Slows Down Time – The Studies
If you’re not yet convinced that marijuana alters your perception of time; here are a few studies to make you reconsider your position. One of the most relevant pieces of scientific research is a critical review of all studies into the effect of weed on the perception of time; by Atakan et al., published in Current Pharmaceutical Design in 2012.
According to Atakan, the review found that 70% of cannabis users experienced an overestimation of time. Basically, the amount of time that actually passed was less than what the weed users believed. Studies of this nature are laden with issues. For example, the delivery methods in studies vary, and they usually don’t take into account previous weed use. Then there is the issue of small sample size.
These problems are well known and a 2014 Yale study by D’Souza et al., published in Psychopharmacology, aimed to tackle the limitations of other studies. D’Souza was the leader of the study, and he spoke of his interest in how individuals who found the effects of weed to be unpleasant and also experienced time dilation, found the entire experience even less pleasant.
The study involved 44 volunteers with differing experiences of the herb. They were asked to complete a pair of time dilation tests before, during, and after consuming between 0.015mg of THC per kg, 0.05mg of THC per kg and no THC (a placebo).
The first test was a simple ‘time estimation task’ which involved estimating how much time had passed while they completed a task designed to distract them. The actual time elapsed ranged from 5 to 30 seconds. The second test was a ‘time production task’ which consisted of estimating the time elapsed while completing a distraction task but also involved holding down a computer key to help specify the time elapsed.
Ultimately, ‘high’ volunteers overestimated time by up to 25% and underproduced time by around 15% compared to when they were sober. According to D’Souza, weed dilates time, so five minutes is experienced as ten minutes. Weed users felt as if time was passing more slowly; a feeling that occurs when your internal clock is sped up.
The study found that users with THC in their system experienced a speeding up of subjective (internal) time which made them feel as if objective (external) time passed by more slowly. Once the high dissipated, this feeling went with it.
There is also a study which found that marijuana causes time dilation in animals as well. The 2001 study, by Han and Robinson, published in Behavioral Neuroscience, involved giving chemicals to rats to activate their cannabinoid receptors. When this happened, the rats experienced an underproduction of time similar to what later human studies revealed. In the same study, other rats received a chemical blocking their receptors which led to time overproduction.
Okay, So Being High Causes Time Dilation – Why?
We have studies which outline how marijuana causes our internal clocks to speed up, but why is this the case? Even D’Souza admits that he doesn’t have a definitive answer and scientists can only theorize at this point.
A study by Pauls et al., published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in May 2014, could help unlock the mystery. It found that the thalamo-cortico-striatal circuit, a brain network, is crucial to how we perceive time. This region of the brain contains a huge number of cannabinoid receptors so when THC hits the brain, it may disrupt the usual function of the receptors which causes a shift in how we perceive time.
D’Souza and his team found that the most significant change in time perception occurred amongst those who seldom used weed. Medium and high doses of THC led to an overestimation of time, whereas all doses led to time underproduction. Those who used cannabis at least 2-3 times a week didn’t experience much of a change in time perception no matter how much THC was in their system. In other words, experienced stoners don’t typically fall foul of time dilation.
The D’Souza team believes that regular use of THC can dampen the psychoactive cannabinoid’s perception-altering effects and their receptor’s sensitivity to the compound. When you use weed often enough, you are more likely to develop a tolerance to its effects on time perception.
Another theory is that regular users are aware of how the herb impacts their internal clock and are able to ‘recalibrate’ it. However, you would need to be stoned more often than you were sober for this to happen. It would also cause your time-keeping to be way off on the occasions you were sober. This did not happen in the D’Souza study.
There are other theories as to why weed causes time dilation. One such theory posits that certain strains cause you to become more focused on a task which means time passes much faster than you realize. Alternatively, a lack of focus when high may cause you to daydream a lot so when you finally become sober, far more time has passed than you assume.
It is also possible that short-term memory loss is to blame. After all, if you smoke a lot of potent weed, you can forget what the hell is happening in any given moment. Suddenly, four hours have passed by without you knowing!
Could Time Dilation Affect Me When I Smoke Weed?
This is another interesting question. If D’Souza and his team are correct, marijuana only “slows down time” by a matter of seconds rather than minutes or hours. As such, you may believe that it doesn’t make much of a difference to your daily life. Alas, a few seconds can have a HUGE impact on your life: Have you ever watched Sliding Doors?
The majority of our daily actions are based on temporal judgments in the seconds to minutes range according to D’Souza. For example, when you cross the road, you do so only after checking to see if any vehicles are approaching. Likewise, when you are driving, a messed-up internal clock can have devastating consequences. Indeed, there is research which suggests that driving while stoned increases your risk of being involved in an accident due to slower reaction times.
Final Thoughts on Why Weed Slows Down Time
The truth is, we are still a long way from understanding the nature of time. Our day is based on the time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun. We assume that time travels linearly, but others believe time travels in a loop that will inevitably repeat itself. It is scientifically possible to travel forward in time. In fact, Professor Brian Cox claims you CAN go forward in time, BUT you won’t be able to come back. He believes time travel has already happened on a small scale.
One of my favorite video games growing up was called the Illusion of Time, and you could argue that being high does precisely that: It gives you the illusion of extra time. In other words, it really is a sense of “marijuana slowing down time.” Perhaps more time has passed than you realize, but if you have enjoyed that moment, regardless of how fleeting, maybe it was time well spent.