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.
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)
Hurled Away by a Stream of Ideas -Charles Baudelaire
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 can become dangerous i.e. while driving a car high. On the other side, 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”), a group of French intellectuals founded in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century to explore the mind-altering effects of marijuana. The members of the cannabis club ingested large doses of hash marmalade, so it comes as no surprise that many of them became familiar with this phenomenon which 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
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 “mindracing” 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 which “hurl you along”. In my view, this intensity of experience comes from what I have called “hyperfocussing” during a high. When high, we hyperfocus on sensations, thoughts, or 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 our 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.
In Eternity – Fitz Hugh Ludlow
In his famous book “The Hasheesh Eater” (1857), the American author Fitz Hugh Lludlow 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 likewise 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 musthave 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
Mindracing, Hyperfocussing, and Associative Leaps
Like Baudelaire, we can see how Ludlow’s mind is racing. He is going through so many associative chains and detailed imaginations that it feels to him like a long time must have been passed since he began his reverie because he feels that 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 outside him which unfold in real time. Both 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 fast stream of often ‘jumpy’ associative thoughts or imaginations.
The Uses of Time Slowdown
This account of the perceptual slowdown of time during a high above would explain why many users of marijuana appreciate the effect of a perceptual time slowdown so much. With their racing and concentrated mind, users find themselves to be better able to appreciate the subtleties and depths of immediate sensations, as if they were presented in slow motion. For them, the subjective slowdown of time is not merely a perceptual distortion, but a real mind enhancement. Surely, the effect can be merely used for relaxation, mainly to step outside the ever accelerating speed of the routines of our everyday lives and to be in the here-and-now. However, many others seek this perceptual slowdown to appreciate the never usually perceived details and nuances of the moment of a great wine tasting experience, of the endlessly complex and soothing sounds of gentle waves washing upon a beach at night, or to go on a seemingly infinite voyage of lovemaking.
1Charles Baudelaire, “Le Poème du Haschisch”, in: Artificial Paradises, Citadel, 1998)
2Ludlow, Fritz Hugh (1857/2009). The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean. Chapter II: “Under the shadows of Esculapius.” http://www.lycaeum.org/nepenthes/Ludlow/THE/index.html