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The old adage ‘time heals‘ appears to be correct at one level. A broken romance hurts less as time goes by, tears and mourning after the death in the family eventually subside, the physical and psychological trauma of a car crash heals as the months and years pass. But ‘time heals’ does not tell the whole story. Sometimes bitterness, shock and grief set in for long periods, so after a year the lover still pines and the bereaved easily comes to tears. By and large though, time does heal … or does it?
Is it actually the passing of time, the clock ticking, that brings the healing, or is it all those activities we carry out during that time that make the difference? To turn the argument around, are there things we do or fail to do which impede the healing?
Take the example of sleep. Every 24 hours of time passing sees us going to bed, sleeping and dreaming. A third of this time passing, assuming eight hours sleep a night, is taken up in sleep. Wagner and colleagues at Lübeck and Cologne Universities (2004) gave research volunteers a number puzzle to solve that could be achieved simply by hard mental slog or gaining insight into a hidden rule which could dramatically speed up the problem solving. The task was initially given to some volunteers at 11am and they were retested eight hours later. Another group were given it at 11 pm and tested after eight hours of staying awake at night and a last group were given it at 11 pm, told to sleep and retested at 7 am. In the group who had slept on the problem, twice as many had gained insight into the hidden rule as those during a normal day, or staying awake at night. Related research (Maquet 2001, Smith 1995 & Buzsaki 1998) shows that sleep consolidates recent memories as well as inspiring insight. Wagner concluded that “sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour”. What applies to rather academic problem solving should also apply to the more relevant solving, restructuring and healing of life’s everyday problems. It is not clear from Wagner’s research whether it was sleeping or dreaming which aided the process of insight but whichever way the emotional processing of life events should be assisted by sleeping. So, in this study, it was not the passing of time which was the essential element to gaining insight but the unconscious mental work done during sleeping.
Our lives are full of so many different activities that these too, like sleep, might be essential to time’s supposed healing powers.
Moving this discussion into the terminology of emotional processing, we should ask “what activities assist the processing of negative life experiences and what activities hinder?”. Does emotional processing occur simply with the passing of time or are there certain attitudes, thought patterns, behaviours or emotional processing styles which interfere with successful healing?