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Speeding Up Perceived Time May Make Wounds Heal Faster

A pair of hands hold up a red clock on a blue background.
Credit: Malvestida/Unsplash
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A slow-ticking clock may increase the time it takes for your body to heal, claims a new study.

The psychology research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, involved a complex and deceptive experiment in which participants were tricked into perceiving time differently. The study was small, featuring 33 volunteers, but its authors say the findings suggest that the relationship between mental and physical health is more complicated than first thought.

During the study, participants were mildly wounded on their arms through cupping, a technique that creates broken blood vessels below the skin by applying suction. Participants were asked to complete a series of at-home cupping sessions, before being brought into the lab. Participants each completed three experiments, each with a different type of time manipulation: slow time, normal time and fast time. They weren’t told that time was to be varied during the experiment.

In the normal time condition, participants were asked to complete a healing survey after cupping. Over a 28-minute period, the group filled out the survey 7 times. When they weren’t filling in the survey, they were asked to play Tetris. A digital timer told them when to complete each survey. A picture of the participants’ arms was taken at the start and end of the experiment.

In the fast time condition, the digital clock was manipulated to run twice as fast, showing 56 minutes by the end of the experiment, when in reality only 28 real-world minutes had passed. In the slow time condition, the clock showed 14 minutes when, once again, 28 minutes had elapsed. During each condition, additional activities were used to bulk out the experiment to one hour overall, allowing the experimenters to maintain the illusion that all conditions had different amounts of healing time involved.

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Importantly, all participants were surveyed after their participation. None guessed that altered time perception was the purpose of the experiment.

The experimenters were not interested in the participants’ own measurements of healing. Instead, they recruited 25 raters using Amazon’s crowdsourcing website, Mechanical Turk. Each pair of photos – one taken straight after cupping and the other at the end of the healing surveys – was assessed by the raters on a 0–10 scale, with 10 implying complete recovery. On average, the raters said that arms in the "56-minute" fast time condition were more healed than the other two conditions, while arms in the normal 28-minute condition were judged to have healed more than arms in the "14-minute" slow time condition. It’s important to remember that all arms had exactly the same amount of time to recover.

The only factor that had changed was the arm owners’ belief that different amounts of time had passed.

The authors said that their study has important implications for how we think about the link between mind and body. The underlying mechanism behind this link remains unclear. “These results support the hypothesis that the effect of time on physical healing is directly affected by one’s psychological experience of time, independent of the actual elapsed time,” concluded the authors.

Reference: Aungle P, Langer E. Physical healing as a function of perceived time. Sci Rep. 2023;13(1):22432. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-50009-3

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Harvard. Material has been edited for length and content.