In the fairytale lands of children’s books time passes in strange and unusual ways. The children of The Lion, The Watch and the Wardrobe fight a lengthy battle with the White Witch, grow up, rule over their own Kingdoms and live full lives — yet when they stumble back through the wardrobe mere minutes have passed. When Alice crashes Wonderland, time bends and runs around, personified as a trickster. When Max returns from his tumultuous adventures in Where The Wild Things Are, he finds the supper his mother left him is still warm. Almost no time has passed, and yet they are changed. They have seen and experienced magic.

Wonderland (via Wikimedia Commons)

Psychedelics and Time

Psychedelic trips are much the same. Psychonauts report feeling that when they are tripping, time seems to stretch, to fall away, to no longer mean anything really. Many people have life changing psychic experiences — realizations, changes of perception, moments of clarity and peace — that will forever alter their life on the non-psychedelic plane.  This kind of mental adventure and growth can be so encompassing that you feel as though you have been ‘away’ for eons. However, you find it has really only been a few hours. 

(Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash)

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

Time perception is deeply related to our consciousness. Think about it — you feel it day to day. From watching the clock slowly dripping away the minutes during a boring lecture, to realizing hours have passed while catching up with friends, it’s all about what we are focusing on and it’s relation to us. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’ after all. 

Exploring the Mysteries of Consciousness

Psychedelics are fast becoming the tools of choice for scientists and psychologists to explore the workings of the human mind. With them in our locker, we are closer than ever to understanding the mysteries of consciousness. 

When a person experiences ego-death or enlightenment from psychedelics they are temporarily freed from the ‘self’. They are released from their insecurities and mundane worries and can see a bigger picture. If our perception of time is so tied to our perception of self, it makes total sense that when our ‘self’ or ego becomes less dominant, our sense of time does also. 

However, understandably, this kind of subject is difficult to study, or find hard evidence for. Sure there’s plenty of anecdotal stories, but scientists are trying to hammer it down just that bit more. 

via Pixabay

In the 1950s and ‘60s when psychedelics were legal and under heavy study, scientists had begun to look into this phenomenon. A study, Clinical Studies of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide published in 1954, found that out of 23 volunteers administered LSD 13 of them experienced ‘time disorder’. Although some felt time was stretching out forever, and others felt it slipping away at a pace, most felt a sensation of ‘temporal insularity.’ This means that they felt as though they were existing fully in the present, at a remove from both past and future. 

The Science of Time Perception

More recently, with the current wave of psychedelic study rolling, this subject has been picked up again. In 2018 Devin Terhune, a cognitive neuroscientist, co-authored a study on the effects of an LSD microdose on people’s perception of time. Terhune himself has long been fascinated by how neurochemicals can distort our perception of time, and what mechanisms need to take place for this to happen. New research has shown which specific brain pathways and receptors psychedelics affect. If these same psychedelics can alter the user’s perception of time, then it follows that our perception of time may also be regulated by these same pathways and chemicals… 

Exciting stuff!

LSD Microdose Study

So, Terhune and co. ‘s study, published in Psychopharmacology consisted of 48 participants split into four groups. The study was double blind, randomized, and placebo controlled with one of the four groups being the placebo group. The other three groups each received a low dosage of LSD — with 5,10 or 20 micrograms. They then had a ‘temporal reproduction’ task to do. This consisted of the volunteer being shown a blue circle on a screen for a certain amount of time. They were then asked to recreate how long they believed it to have been on the screen by pressing a button for the same amount of time. 

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Terhune told Vice.com;

“So, this blue circle would appear on the screen for, say, 1,200 milliseconds, or 1,600 milliseconds, whatever it might be. The participant had to focus on that, estimate and memorize that duration.”

What the researchers found was that the groups administered with LSD held down the button for considerably longer. Basically, they vastly overestimated the time the blue circle had been on screen. This consequence happened independently of psychedelic effects. This was a ‘microdose’ study after all. A few volunteers felt slight changes but not enough to affect the statistics of the study. 

Although the results were indeed intriguing, Terhune and his cohort have yet to determine exactly what they mean.

Firstly — at what point was the time perception altered? Was it while watching the blue circle? Or was it whilst pressing the button? 

Results Imply a Mixture of Factors

Manoj Doss, who did not work of the study himself, but is a postdoctoral cognitive neuropsychopharmacologist believes it could be a mixture of factors. He told Vice.com;

“Let’s pretend you thought to yourself that an initial interval felt like 3 seconds (and it actually was). When you’re reproducing it under a state in which time feels twice as long, you would think that 3 seconds passed when actually only 1.5 seconds had passed. This means that participants in their study could have encoded the interval in a perfectly normal fashion but felt that time had “sped” up during the reproduction interval, thereby leading to longer estimation. My guess is that both effects are at play.”

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Time  — it’s slippery! But we do know for certain that psychedelics do have an effect. It’s just the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that’s still a bit foggy. But as research continues it’s sure to become clearer! 

Psilocybin Causes the Opposite Effect

However, to further muddy the water, a similar study from 2007, this time using psilocybin (from magic mushrooms and truffles) found that the drug caused under-reproduction, the opposite of the LSD study. This meant the participants underestimated the amount of time they had to reproduce in the task. Interestingly, other psilocybin studies have found this too. 

What is key to note is that although psilocybin and LSD are considered to be relatively similar drugs in terms of effect, they seemed to be causing opposite time-perceptive effects in studies. Manoj Doss again;

“If you have two drugs that essentially do very similar things in the brain and one is doing the opposite, has the complete opposite effect, that’s amazing,”

(via Pixabay)

One theory is that LSD could have a wider variety of effects on the brain. Both psilocybin and LSD affect the serotonin receptors. However, LSD also has an effect on dopamine receptors. This could mean that serotonin and dopamine are key elements in our perceptions of time, but in potentially conflicting ways. 

More study of both psilocybin and LSD are necessary if we are to further uncover the secrets of the mind, and potentially, consciousness itself. 

When Science Catches Up

It is always fascinating when science catches up to what has been known experientially and anecdotally for a very long time. Those who’ve taken a psychedelic trip, lived whole lives, and experienced revelations in a few hours will tell you.

In a culture where we never feel as though we have enough time in the day, psychedelics like magic mushrooms can be used to make us fully present in the moment — even if the moment is a swirling spiritual vision. This eternity that exists within a shroom trip is real in our minds. In this way psychedelics do give us extra time. 

(Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash)

Trippy, huh! Have you experienced the psychedelic time warp? Let us know in the comments below!