January 3, 2024

How time perception impacts healing

Editor's Note

When it comes to healing, perception matters. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that participants wounds healed more quickly when they believed that time had passed more quickly, regardless of how much time had actually elapsed. Results were published in nature Scientific Reports on December 17.

Researchers used cupping – essentially, using suction cups to bruise the skin – to create “wounds” in 33 participants. They manipulated perceived time by asking participants to complete surveys at specific time intervals, separated by other tasks (such as watching YouTube videos or playing Tetris). Meanwhile, they artificially sped or slowed the digital timer measuring the interval between surveys.

Healing levels were measured for three perceived time conditions: Slow Time (half as fast as clock time), Normal Time (clock time), and Fast Time (twice as fast as clock time). In each case, the actual elapsed time was 28 minutes, but researchers observed that significantly more healing occurred when participants believed time had passed quickly compared to slower perceived times. 

These results support the hypothesis that psychological experience of time has a direct impact on physical healing – a finding that challenges conventional medical wisdom arguing that psychological influences affect health only indirectly. Researchers say they will continue to pursue research about how healing time expectations may affect actual physical healing times. 

“These data and the larger body of research of which they are a part suggest that—at the very least—neglecting the role of the mind when trying to understand any behavior of the body is risky at best and reckless at worst,” they conclude “Language and labels matter, and we count ourselves among the growing chorus of health researchers urging others to start thinking in terms of mind–body ‘unity.’”

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