How do psychedelics affect your perception of time?

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Does time move quickly, or slowly?

Time should be a fixed phenomenon that we measure in seconds, minutes and hours. Yet time is something flexible. And that is certainly the case when psychedelics are involved. With mind-altering substances, you may experience that time suddenly goes very fast, or just slows down or even stands still. This fascinating phenomenon is now being further investigated. In this blog, we take a closer look at how psychedelics can affect your perception of time.

Time is an elastic concept

There are those moments when time seems to pass differently than normal. That happened to Devin Terhune, a neuroscientist. In 2015, he was hit by a car. He was riding his bicycle at high speed and when he hit the car he was thrown at least 5 meters away. “Objectively, the accident probably lasted less than a second,” he says. “But as I flew through the air, it felt to me like it took at least 5 seconds. Time went so slow!”

Time was stretched from milliseconds to seconds. Terhune experienced something that we all experience regularly, although in a somewhat less dramatic way. Time is measured in fixed units, seconds and minutes. But often time feels much more elastic. Ten minutes feel like an eternity when you’re bored, but when you’re chatting socially with a friend, they’re over in no time.

Perceiving time is an important process in the brain. There is a connection with emotions, attention, memory and consciousness. Psychiatric and neurological disorders can also affect it. There are scientists who have noted that drugs can affect the experience of time, but little solid research has been done.

Hourglass at sunset

The influence of psychedelics on perception of time

It is well established that mind-altering substances, such as magic mushrooms or truffles, affect how you experience time. The sparse studies on this could confirm that this is so. Unfortunately, this did not clarify exactly how this phenomenon works. There is an account from 1913, written by someone who had used mescaline. This one mentioned that the substance gave him a sense that the future was racing forward at a chaotic speed and that time was boundless.

In 1954, a study was conducted on 23 people who used psychedelics. For 13 of them, there was time disruption. Most got a feeling they were locked in time, that only the now was real and the future was very far away. One participant felt timeless, others experienced time slipping through their fingers very quickly, and for still a few others, time was actually moving very slowly. There was also one person whose mood fluctuated between elation and depression. It was striking that his experience of time also alternated between fast and slow.

Terhune finds the perception of time fascinating, and he is interested in understanding the mechanisms involved. Psychedelics affect certain networks and chemicals in the brain. There may be advantages to finding out exactly what is happening.

Time delay or time acceleration

Beautiful psychedelic abstraction - interference in soap films in reflected light

The influence of LSD on the perception of time

Terhune and his colleagues published ín 2018 a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study of the effects of microdoses of LSD on the perception of time. It turns out that even at these low doses, LSD can affect how people experience time. Forty-eight healthy people participated in the study. They were divided into four groups, with 1 group receiving a placebo and the other three receiving different small doses of LSD (5, 10 or 20 mcg).

Then they had to undergo a test. Participants saw an image on a screen for a certain amount of time (in this case, a blue circle). Then they had to remember and reproduce how long they had seen this. On average, the image was displayed between 800 and 4000 milliseconds. Participants then had to estimate how long they had seen them. Then they were supposed to press the space bar on the computer for just as long.

The researchers compared how accurately the different groups performed this task. It was found that the groups given LSD held down the space bar significantly longer than those with the placebo. This is called over-reproduction. Remarkably, no other hallucinations and other effects were caused by the drug. Despite being microdosed with LSD, there was interference with the perception of time.

Wild mushroom colony growing in a Pacific Northwest rainforest. RLTheis

How psilocybin changes perception of time

Scientist Wittmann of Germany studied the impact of psilocybin on the experience of time in 2007. Twelve healthy people participated, and they received medium or higher doses of psilocybin. It was found that these people had a significant impairment to reproduce intervals longer than 2.5 seconds. They actually under-reproduced, and it shows that they actually pressed the space bar too short. Psilocybin, contrary to Terhune’s research, seems to provide a sense of acceleration of time.

Manoj Doss, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University finds this contradiction exciting. In fact, LSD and psilocybin are drugs that work similarly in the brain. That they then still have opposite effects on timekeeping is amazing, he says.

Group of young researchers analyzing chemical data in the laboratory

What can we learn from psychedelics and their influence on the perception of time?

If we knew better how the perception of time works, could we modify it to take advantage of it? People who suffer from depression or other mental symptoms have indicated that their perception of time may change. With depression, it can seem as if time is slowing down or even stopping altogether. It is possible that speeding up or slowing down time could be helpful in such conditions.

Wittmann points out that there is a strong link between time and emotions, where negative emotions can cause you to feel as if you are stuck in time. Currently, there is no unified theory of the normal perception of time. Wittmann thinks subjective time is related to the body and to what extent we feel our bodies. It may be that certain parts of the brain are responsible for perceiving internal signals in our body and therefore for the passage of time.

“I think consciousness of time and self-awareness in general, are regulated together,” Wittmann explains. “Are you bored? What happens then is that you are very strongly connected to yourself. You reflect more on yourself, you feel your body clearly in that moment. And time slows down. But when your self-awareness is not so powerful, when you are engaged in an interesting conversation, for example, or you are watching a movie, you are in the flow. You are not so aware of yourself and of your body. Then time actually goes fast. So you see how perception of yourself and of time are strongly connected.”

If more research is done on psychedelics, we can get more clarity on these kinds of fascinating phenomena. Not only can we then learn more about how the perception of time changes under the influence of these agents, but also how that works in everyday life.

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