Donald Trump became president of the United States a little over a fortnight ago, but it feels like months, years, or decades have passed. This is because, as Angela Chen notes at the Verge, the intervening days have been an emotional roller coaster, with all the bans and marches and swallowed packs of gum.
In experiments, people are usually accurate at estimating the passage of time, she reports, but when under distress — like, say, having to view a photo of a headless body — their perceptions get distorted, the seconds stretch out. Thus explains our present predicament: Every day has had a new terrifying headline, demanding of cognitive and emotional resources. All that information-processing “makes us feel like an event has lasted a lot longer, because we have to think a lot more about things,” Ruth Ogden, a psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University, tells Chen.
Time, as you may have observed, has a springy quality to it, one that depends on the things you’re experiencing. “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it,” writes Joshua Foer in Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. “You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one.” On the bright side, that’s why you can get a month’s worth of living from a week abroad; more darkly, it’s why the novel churnings of an authoritarian regime slow everything down.
Philosophy, the reclusive older sibling of psychology, further explains why. As in: Time, as measured by a clock, is objective; it exists out there in the world, measured by our various instruments. But the only direct access a living human has to time is through their own consciousness; it’s categorically subjective, which doesn’t make it any less true, despite what physics envy might tell you. About a century ago, a French philosopher by the name of Henri Bergson nailed this difference; he drew a distinction between durée, or the felt, lived experience of time, and l’étendu, or time as measured by a clock. (Many of his works, including his most accessible, An Introduction to Metaphysics, you can find for free online.)
Like his friend William James, Bergson is firmly on Team Lived Experience, and he thought that mechanistic notions of time might be useful for doing cold science, but not for getting at what it’s like to be alive. To Bergson, what we’re talking about when we talk about time is really consciousness, the phenomenological stream of moment to moment. So when people say that time slows down when they’re looking at a headless corpse or an orange-haired president, they’re not distorting objective “time” — they’re reporting their own consciousness, which, depending on the philosopher you ask, could be the only instrument we have for accessing truth in the first place. It feels like years have passed since Trump’s inauguration because in a personal, subjective, and phenomenological sense, they have.