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Time Distortion

Time-Distortion is a feature of many Altered States of Consciousness, including Flow, The Zone and Hypnosis, as well as the kind of natural trance that we all experience every day. 


As you are waiting in a queue, you look into the middle distance, your eyes relax and unfocus, and you go into a little day-dream. You snap out of this trance when the person behind taps you on the shoulder: the queue moved forward ages ago. Meanwhile, you were oblivious to the passing of time.


On a cold, wet, windy day, you are waiting outside for your transport to arrive. The wind-driven rain stings your face, the bitter cold seems to penetrate your bones. After what seems like a very long time, you check your watch again: only a couple of minutes have passed.


You are making a familiar journey, perhaps driving your car, getting on and off public transport, or just walking. Your mind is concentrated on other matters. When you arrive at your destination, you have no conscious awareness of the process of the journey itself, and your perception of time is derived from the inner world of your thoughts, not from your actual progress through the real world.

Time-Distortion in Hypnosis


Hypnosis involves experiences of dissociation. A hypnotist may invite you to dissociate yourself spatially: "imagine yourself in some beautiful place, a beach, a forest, a riverside". You may experience an altered perception of Where you are. Similarly, your perception of "When" may also be altered.


Together with Linn Cooper, Milton Erickson published the results of various experiments on Time Distortion in Hypnosis (1954), read more here. In the Foreword, Harold Rosen distinguishes between various different types of hypnotic manipulation of Time and discusses non-therapeutic applications, for example aiding Learning processes.


In Time Regression, a therapist guides a client backwards in time to explore memories that might be hidden from conscious awareness. In Time Progression, the therapist invites the client to explore imaginatively a possible future. Both procedures invite the mind to blend memory and imagination to create vivid hallucinations that are not necessarily indications of real world events. Time Regression should be used with great caution: disturbing and/or false memories may be revealed, past traumas may be experienced anew. Time Progression is often used in sports coaching, encouraging athletes to envision a successful performance. However, recent studies have shown that some subtleties are required for this approach to be effective.  These are powerful techniques, but this is not the territory I'm exploring on this page.  


Cooper & Erickson (and my work here, too) are concerned with the difference between normal clock time (in the real world) and an individual's subjective perception of Time (whilst in hypnotic trance). Rosen notes in 1954 that this is a 'not uncommon phenomenon. It may occur during the stress of battle, while dreaming, or when under the influence of drugs like mescalin'. Cooper & Erickson agree:


In the waking individual, time distortion is a fairly common experience... intervals with the same clock reading may have a very short seeming duration during pleasure and amusement, or interest; and a very long one during boredom, anticipation, discomfort, or anxiety. This finds expression in such folk sayings as "Time flies on love's wings," or "The watched pot never boils."

Time-Distortion in Flow


Csikszentmihalyi recognised Time Distortion as one of the characteristic signs of Flow. You might be studying, practising a musical instrument, or training for sports, concentrating intently on the activity at end. When you stop, you are amazed how much time has passed. As the saying goes, "Time flies when you're having fun". 

In my modelling of Flow-Pairs, I link Time Distortion to Delayed Gratification. Whilst in Flow, you are engaged in the present moment, not distracted by thoughts of future reward. This intense engagement with Now dissociates the mind from the normal perception of clock time. 


The theory of Flow-Pairs would predict that Delayed Gratification is only part of the altered experience of Time in Flow. If there is a high level of Time Distortion, we would expect a correspondingly high level of some balancing opposite characteristic. To oppose the inner world experience of Time Distortion, there must be some high-precision factor related to external, real-world time.  


I suggest that this balancing characteristic goes beyond Delayed Gratification to comprise a general exclusion from consciousness of any awareness of Past or Future. Flow is characterised by a strong focus on the instantaneous Present.


In Flow, intense concentration on the Now of the current experience filters out consideration of any other time, Future or Past, just as the intense focus on one particular subject prevents competing topics from becoming a distraction. The Flow-Pair for Concentration is Relaxation. Similarly, the experience of Time in Flow is enhanced by your being relaxed about the Past, not anxious about the Future, just utterly concentrated in the moving instant of the Present moment.

Two types of Time Distortion

However, Cooper and Erickson's book is mostly concerned with a different phenomenon of Time Distortion. Some individuals reported that in an emergency, Time seemed to slow down; everything seemed to happen 'in slow motion'. One man was in an automobile that skidded off the road and that turned completely over twice, before landing at the bottom of a decline. 


He commented about his subjective feeling that time was now either standing still or going in slow motion; it seemed to him as though it took approximately half an hour from the time the car started to turn over till it hit the decline on the side, as though it took another half an hour before the car turned over to its roof, as though there was still another half an hour before it turned over to the other side, etc.-and since it turned over two full times in all, as though in the short space of less than a few seconds, over two hours had passed.


Sometimes, in an emergency, the mind becomes wonderfully clear, Time seems to slow down, so that people are able to execute complex rescue procedures far beyond their normal abilities.


Again, persons who have nearly drowned have reported reliving large segments of their lives in what proved to be but a few minutes. Such experience proceeds at a normal rate as far as the victim is



This is the well-known cliché of a near-death experience, during which your whole life flashes before your eyes. But, as Cooper & Erickson emphasise, it does not 'flash' by, it is experienced at what seems to be a normal rate. As for the man in the car crash, the inner experience is of a long period of time, compared to clock time in the external real world. 


So there are two types of Time Distortion. In Type I, "Time flies" when you are having fun, or if you are in Flow. But, Type II, "Time goes into slow-motion" in an emergency. Hypnosis can guide you towards either type, according to the precise wording of the Hypnotic Suggestion.


Cooper & Erickson catalogue various situations in terms of external stimuli perceived by the senses, inner (imaginative/hallucinatory) experience, and Time Distortion.


Boredom     No change in sensory perception. There is little or no inner experience. Time seems to go into slow-motion. Type II.


Dreaming   External stimuli are not perceived, or are perceived in altered form. The inner experience may include vivid, complex and lengthy sequences of events, which are experienced at normal speed, but which occupy very little time in the real world. Type II.


Hypnosis External stimuli are not perceived, or are perceived in altered form. The inner experience may include vivid, complex and lengthy sequences of events, which are experienced at normal speed, but which occupy very little time in the real world. Cooper & Erickson investigated Type II. But other Richard Nongard, Richard Bandler and other NLP practitioners have documented Type I distortion, in which a long period of clock time in the real world seems much shorter to the individual. This can be used to reduce the effect of unpleasant, boring or painful situations. 


The narrow escape External stimuli seem to be slowed down, action appears to occur in 'slow motion'. In the real world, high speeds may be involved. Thoughts and imagery are often much increased, in comparison to real world time, but the individual feels their thinking to be at normal speed. Type II.


Fun External stimuli are experienced normally. Thoughts are experienced normally. But in what seems to be a short time, a much longer period of clock time may elapse in the real world. "Time flies". Type I.


Flow External stimuli are experienced normally. Thoughts are experienced normally. But in what seems to be a short time, a much longer period of clock time may elapse in the real world. "Time flies". Type I.

Time Distortion in The Zone

So which type of Time Distortion would be desirable in The Zone? Which type would help you acheive superb performance in sport, music performance or martial arts?


Cooper & Erickson cite N.R. Inglis' report of


A subject who claimed to be able to bring about an apparent slowing of observed physical phenomena at will, and to have employed this ability to advantage while boxing, when it aided him in placing blows.


Brandler reports that a young girl, hypnotised with a suggestion of Time Distortion, was able to overpower several adult martial arts experts. Quite simply, she was able to observe, analyse and move faster than they could, because for her, time had gone into slow-motion.


As a musician, I have personal experience of Time Distortion in my best performances. Although the music maintains a steady tempo, time itself seems to go into slow-motion for me, so that I feel that I have ample time to take decisions when improvising, or to execute complex technicalities in written music. 


These are all Type II Time Distortions, where the subjective experience is that there is lots of time, whereas the real-world clock measures a much shorter time. 


This is the contrary situation to Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, in which the subjective experience is that a short time has passed, whereas the real-world clock measures a much longer time. [Time Distortion Type I].

Flow and The Zone are similar,
but different.
The difference is all to do with Time Distortion.
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