March 15, 2006

On Mania and Catatonia and the Perception of TIme

I read in Discover magazine that someone did a preliminary study of time perception where he had two novice bunjee-jumpers fall 150 feet. They wore on their wrists a kind of display meter that blazed out while they fell a sequence of numbers so quickly it was impossible to read them, not, at least, while on stable ground. When the jumps were over, the terrified twosome were able to recite all of the numbers in sequence. The conclusion was, in effect, that time had slowed down for them as they fell. In the same way, traumatic events sometimes seem to happen in slow motion during a instant of crisis. In fact, time itself didn’t slow down. In fact, the mind speeded up. The mind became able to read those numbers after all. So it seemed as if time slowed down in order to let it. As the article puts it, Speed the mind, slow the [perceived] time. (brackets mine)

With amphetamines, the experience is euphoric not terrifying, but I believe it has to do with slowed down time as well, and with the fact that one is being more than ordinarily productive. The reason one writes that paper faster is because one has more mental time in which to write. If the actual time and the work to be accomplished can't and don’t change, just the perception of time, the perception must be that one has plenty. Or else, which has nothing to do with perception, one’s capacities within time are enhanced. Or both.

Something like this happens in mania when the world seems to be moving too slowly compared to manic individuals. They know they are going faster than the norm; the rest of the world are dawdlers. Grandiosely they might say, “I have transcended time. Time is nothing to me.” Indeed, at first, at the hypomanic stage, it seems to be true. They may be brimming with endless energy and ideas, able to work non-stop, often going days producing brilliantly on little sleep. They may in fact fit more into an hour than most people can think of. Their minds are supercharged. Then full-blown mania hits and it all goes up in smoke as this hypomanic energy suddenly explodes like a supernova.

I think where people get confused, and indeed where the author of the Discover article himself got confused, was in our notion of boredom, when an hour seems to take forever, and time “hangs heavy on your hands.” (is that the expression? Hangs on something at any rate...). That is another discussion altogether. In mania, the slowing down of time is not as noticeable, or not as terrible, because of one's enhanced energy, interest and productiveness. “She can do more in an hour than anyone else can do in a day,” is the sort of thing said of a hypomanic person. And I would agree. It’s not that an hour is shorter, it’s that an hour has more space in it to fill and fill it she does. The only way to overfill an hour (with the “more than anyone else can do”) is to expand it, which means to make it longer. What’s lucky for the hypomanic people of the world is that this doesn’t matter; they aren’t bored, no, most enjoy every minute.

The manic person and the amphetamine taker are similar: they produce more, at least at first, and the only way to produce more is to slow perceived time, that is, speed the mind, or to increase the work done. I believe it is both: the speed user and the person experiencing a manic episode have exquisitely tooled minds going 200mph yet they live by the world’s clocks. The speed at which they think and behave is in fact enhanced: they get more work done. The rest of the world seems slowed down by comparison. The world’s time, consensual time if you will, must seem slower too, because after all it is the world's clock the manic person must go by. Time is not speeded up as most people assume just because the manic person himself races from place to place, project to project. It is the mind, and the body it controls, that is going fast. Not time. Speed the mind, slow the time.

But what about the opposite: slow the mind and speed the time? Is there such a thing? Yes, in fact there is, and it lies on the other end of the spectrum, in catatonia and perhaps in cannabis. When I was catatonic I lay for days motionless or extremely slowed down, so that it might take a half an hour to raise my hand to my mouth to eat. Even then, it might not get that far before freezing in some awkward mid-way position. When I used pot, years and years ago I assure you, the same thing would happen under its influence: I'd become mesmerized by the drug and my movement slowed to a slide show. Others might become absorbed by the wonderful textures of things or the beauty of a single sound, a color, an exquisite taste. We’d all be caught up by something and slowed by it, stopping in order to perceive it more thoroughly. The strange thing about this, as in catatonia, is that time itself, the world’s time, perceived time, speeded up. It had to.

As I lay in bed, barely a muscle twitching except for the constant groan that came and went with my breaths, I noticed that an hour raced by as if it were barely ten minutes. The entire day passed in an hour, so it seemed. Lunch followed seconds upon finishing breakfast and so forth. Time barely touched the ground, it whizzed by so fast. Yet these thoughts themselves came to me like molasses oozed slooowly into a batter. Just so with marijuana. I remember that the effects of a joint would last all night, but that the night itself seemed very short, only as long as the last half hour or so. Someone else has suggested that this is due to the temporary loss of short-term memory that cannabis causes. Maybe so. But it doesn’t explain the slowed-down-ness of the gaze, the deep study of texture and sensation in which everyone indulged, utterly blissful. Minds were slow to think, but deep in wonder, while time ran away like the current of a river. Slow the mind, speed the time.

Posted by pamwagg at March 15, 2006 08:28 PM


What a fascinating post. I'm bipolar and have indeed noticed the world slows down when I am manic, but it had never occurred to me that it was speeded up in catatonia. It always baffled me how people could be motionless for hours on end. It also clears up why I'm so incredibly productive when I am hypomanic, I'm not the genius I'd like to think I am(!)I just have more time. Thank you so much.

Posted by: Lucy at April 30, 2008 01:41 PM


This was a brilliant post. I have struggled with mild anxiety/depression and obesity for the past few years. When I am very depressed, or taking xanax, time seems like it is speeding by, weeks feel like nothing, movies feel like they're 20 minutes long, and so on.
A couple of weeks ago, my doctor put me on phendimetrazine, a weight loss medication very similar to the amphetamines. Now, time seems to be crawling by. Interestingly, the amphetamines have taken away a lot of my anxiety by giving me the mental energy to deal with it and making me feel like I'm actually living my life, and not letting it pass me by.

Posted by: Jeff at April 8, 2006 09:56 PM

Have you been in Hades with me all this time,but because of the speed of my perception of time, my mind operated so slowly that somehow I missed you? (I have abandoned trying to shorten my sentences. I am who am- a manic writer who cannot stop the flow, despite your sage advice.)
You humble me,
as usual,
Your biggest fan, Paula the Perkless

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at March 23, 2006 11:35 PM

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