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Next on the agenda is a talk on “the Role of Emotion, Attention & Neurotransmitters in Human Timing” featuring research psychologist Cathy Montgomery.
The research team works towards an understanding of how we perceive time and how this is altered in different states of consciousness, such as under drugs. Their fundamental model of time processing is that an internal metronome in the brain sends a steady stream ‘clicks’ to an accumulator, which in turn judges the time passed from the number of clicks accumulated. In animal tests, under increased dopamine levels, the frequency of clicks increase, which leads to a judgment of time that is too short vs reality. However, the team were unable to clinically reproduce this dopamine-specific effect in humans, as demonstrated by how Parkinson’s patients have no timing deficits. Montgomery concludes that dopamine plays a significant part in animal studies, but not in humans. I would add that this may seem hard to reconcile, unless one bears in mind the realization of Albert Hofmann and others, that animal studies do not work for psychedelics. At the same time, with dopamine levels clearly affected by psychedelics, it does seem odd that it has no measurable correspondence upon temporal judgment. The findings may be less confusing if one studies serotonin instead, which after all is the neurotransmitter with the strongest connection to the psychedelic compounds (tryptamines in particular).
Montgomery’s team worked primarily with other drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, where all stimulant type compounds had a ‘time-contracting’ effect, meaning that time seemed to fly by like it does when one is busy being euphoric. The cannabis drugs were the only ones to display a time-expanding quality, which seems anecdotally accurate.
The research project joined another group for a series of psilocybin experiments. Montgomery mentions the fact that psilocybin’s effect on the serotonin distribution will affect the working memory, among many other things. Regarding the perception of time they found no changes for very short durations (<2.5 seconds) but notable deviations for longer spans of time, when the assessment of how much time had passed was clearly off. It was suggested by the psilocybin researchers that this was not due to changes in ‘metronome’ frequency, but rather the effects the psilocybin had on short-term memory. Comparisons vs short memory were not reliable in the drug state, which led to the judgment of time being in error. I find this to be possibly accurate, but it does not account for that much of the temporal distortion is not retrospective, but rather occurs in real time, with a minimal or no feedback loop at all. On psychedelics you perceive time stretching out while it happens, sometimes bringing you with it, and this is a forward-oriented process that does not seem to rely on working memory for measurement.
Another hypothesis suggests that the judgment of time on psychedelics is elastic/inaccurate because time has lost its meaning to the subject, which has the effect that the metronome clicks are not checked or maybe not even generated since the mind has removed its attention. To me, this again makes sense in some ways, but the blanket statement that time in the trip space has become ‘meaningless’ is neither universal nor predictable, and so the theory rests on dubious ground. Meaningless is in fact not a proper term to describe the psychedelicist’s attitude towards time. The responses range from preoccupied disinterest to analytical fascination, and the change does not reside in a non-psychedelic ‘care/don’t care’ modality, but rather in the way that the passage of time has become externalized from the psychedelic mindstream. One is no longer able to perceive the clicks of the metronome, which takes place somewhere down in reality, yet there is still an ability to examine and brood over the passage of time if it raises one’s interest. Time will still pass in the tryptamine state, but its rigid tick-tock sequence belongs to the baseline state, while in Innerspace it has become flexible in both nature and relevance.