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The Experience of Pain Dilates Perception of Time, Study Finds

Posted November 20, 2017

It’s probably safe to say that everyone, at some point in their lives, had the experience of time seemingly freezing when something unpleasant is taking place. You take a look at the clock and realise it’s only been five minutes since the last time, even though it feels like it’s been ages.

Now, a new study, published in the journal Nature on 16 November, has empirically confirmed that people’s estimation of the passage of time actually becomes distorted when a painful stimulus is present, clouding our judgement.

In the study, 40 undergraduate students (28 females) with normal or corrected-to-normal vision and no pre-existing conditions known to cause pain were asked to perform a “temporal bisection task” while holding their hands in either tepid (25 °C) or cold water (12 °C). Each participant was tested for approximately 50 minutes.

First, the participants had to focus on the centre of a screen and notice a grey block appearing for either 250 ms or 750 ms. After 12 trials for each condition, when the students became skilled at classifying the durations as either “short” or “long”, the actual experiment began.

People’s estimation of the passage of time is distorted by physical pain. Image credit: Alan Cleaver via, CC BY 2.0.

The grey block appeared at the centre of the screen for 250, 300, 350, 400, 450, 500, 550, 600, 650, 700, or 750 ms in random order, and the volunteers had to classify each as “rather short” or “rather long” while holding their hands in tepid or cold water.

As the researchers expected, a painful stimulus had a noticeable effect on time dilation:

“Pain significantly lengthened the subjective duration of visual stimuli presented concomitantly. Moreover, stronger increases in pain perception relative to non-painful stimulation led to stronger time-estimate distortions. Conversely, during the non-painful control condition, participants estimated time very accurately (deviating only by 0.5-1.6% from its actual duration), thus eliminating a general, non-specific bias”, wrote the researchers in their paper.

Pain increases self-awareness by directing attention to the body, leading the research team to speculate that our perception of time and our own bodies may share a common neural substrate.

Future studies might illuminate the impact each of these mechanisms have on subjective perception of time.

Source: research paper.

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