Donald Trump has only been president for two weeks, but if you’re not happy about the new administration, those 14 days might feel more like 14 years. That’s normal: our brains really do distort time based on how we’re feeling. It’s an evolutionary trick that was helpful when large predators lurked around every corner, but less helpful now as the days seem to drag by.
Time perception is probably determined in our brain by levels of dopamine, a chemical that influences how happy we feel. In one recent experiment, when scientists made mice produce more dopamine, the mice underestimated time — meaning that it probably felt to them like time was going more quickly than it objectively was. And vice versa when scientists blocked the mice’s neurons from producing dopamine.
In general, people tend to be pretty good at estimating how much time has passed, says Ruth Ogden, a psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. It’s an important skill that we use all the time in social environments and while working. But bets are off when we’re highly emotional. Time seems to slow down when we’re stressed. From the evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense: If you detect a threat nearby, feeling like time slows down might better prepare you to react.
Back in 1991, researcher Michael Flaherty went through narrative accounts from biographies to see if people had consistent experiences of time changing. The pattern was clear: yes, time does seem to fly when you’re having fun, and yes, time will seem to be going by more slowly when the Doomsday Clock is quickly inching closer to midnight. (Of course, those who are neutral to Trump or feel positively about him may have no sense of time changing, or might even feel time’s going faster, Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst told The Verge in an email.)
Flaherty’s work only focused on written narratives, but in the years since scientists have done plenty of lab experiments on time duration. In most of these, researchers show participants graphic images, like a photo of a headless body. Then they see how accurately the poor study subjects estimated the amount of time that they were forced to look at that gory picture. The results are remarkably consistent. The more stressed out someone is by an image — which can be measured by how much they sweat — the more they overestimated the duration, and the more slowly time seemed to pass for them. In other words, the more you’re affected by current events, the more you’ll feel like the hours are ticking by too slowly.
There’s a second part to this, too: time also seems to slow when we need to process a lot of new information. In normal times, we live life mostly on autopilot and our brains don’t have to do much work. Since Trump’s election, each day has been filled with surprising headlines that provoke a lot of discussion. “This requires a lot of information processing, and that makes us feel like an event has lasted a lot longer, because we have to think a lot more about things,” says Ogden. I’ve experienced this myself: I have a friend who is trying to avoid the news and so to troll him, I’ve started sending a daily “Trump’s America” email thread. So the time I spend rounding up all these links and pondering the news is making my experience of time worse. This is probably an example of cutting off my nose to spite my face.
The good news is that this feeling of slow-moving time can’t last forever. “It’s so difficult to maintain that level of emotional processing for a long period of time,” adds Ogden. “And also our representation of what is normal will change over that period of time.” It’s likely that some amount of emotional adaptation will happen and each new headline won’t be as shocking. (That doesn’t mean people will get used to Trump and normalize everything he does — so there’s still room for political activism.)
For those of us who want to stop feeling trapped now, Ogden recommends mindfulness meditation. Because meditation focuses on calming and clearing the mind, it can remove some of the distorting effects caused by our emotions. Actively trying to disengage emotionally from the disturbing effects by using distract can also be helpful. I’m going to stop sending that “Trump’s America” email — for my own good.