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Eclipse Psychology: How the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse Will Unite People Watching

It was 11:45 A.M. on August 21, 2017. I was in a grassy field in Glendo, Wyo., where I was surrounded by strangers turned friends, more than I could count—and far more people than had ever flocked to this town, population 210 or so. Golden sunlight blanketed thousands of cars parked in haphazard rows all over the rolling hills. The shadows were quickly growing longer, the air was still, and all of our faces pointed to the sky. As the moon progressively covered the sun, the light melted away, the sky blackened, and the temperature dropped. At the moment of totality, when the moon completely covered the sun, some people around me suddenly gasped. Some cheered; some cried; others laughed in disbelief.

Exactly 53 minutes later, in a downtown park in Greenville, S.C., the person who edited this story and the many individuals around him reacted in exactly the same ways.

When a total solar eclipse descends—as one will across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada on April 8—everyone and everything in the path of totality are engulfed by deep shadow. Unlike the New Year’s Eve countdown that lurches across the globe one blocky time zone after another, the shadow of totality is a dark spot on Earth that measures about 100 miles wide and cruises steadily along a path, covering several thousand miles in four to five hours. The human experiences along that path are not isolated events any more than individual dominoes are isolated pillars in a formation. Once that first domino is tipped, we are all linked into something bigger—and unstoppable. We all experience the momentum and the awe together.

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When this phenomenon progresses from Mexico through Texas, the Great Lakes and Canada on April 8, many observers will describe the event as life-changing, well beyond expectations. “You feel a sense of wrongness in those moments before totality, when your surroundings change so rapidly,” says Kate Russo, an author, psychologist and eclipse chaser. “Our initial response is to ask ourselves, ‘Is this an opportunity or a threat?’ When the light changes and the temperature drops, that triggers primal fear. When we have that threat response, our whole body is tuned in to taking in as much information as possible.”

Russo, who has witnessed 12 total eclipses and counting, has interviewed eclipse viewers from around the world. She continues to notice the same emotions felt by all. They begin with that sense of wrongness and primal fear as totality approaches. When totality starts, we feel powerful awe and connection to the world around us. A sense of euphoria develops as we continue watching, and when it’s over, we have a strong desire to seek out the next eclipse.

“The awe we feel during a total eclipse makes us think outside our sense of self. It makes you more attuned to things outside of you,” says Sean Goldy, a postdoctoral fellow at the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

Goldy and his team analyzed Twitter data from nearly 2.9 million people during the 2017 total solar eclipse. They found that people within the path of totality were more likely to use not only language that expressed awe but also language that conveyed being unified and affiliated with others. That meant using more “we” words (“us” instead of “me”) and more humble words (“maybe” instead of “always”).

“During an eclipse, people have a broader, more collective focus,” Goldy says. “We also found that the more people expressed awe, the more likely they were to use those ‘we’ words, indicating that people who experience this emotion feel more connected with others.”

This connectivity ties into a sociological concept known as “collective effervescence,” Russo and Goldy say. When groups of humans come together over a shared experience, the energy is greater than the sum of its parts. If you’ve ever been to a large concert or sporting event, you’ve felt the electricity generated by a hive of humans. It magnifies our emotions.

I felt exactly that unified feeling in the open field in Glendo, as if thousands of us were breathing as one. But that’s not the only way people can experience a total eclipse.

During the 2008 total eclipse in Mongolia “I was up on a peak,” Russo recounts. “I was with only my husband and a close friend. We had left the rest of our 25-person tour group at the bottom of the hill. From that vantage point, when the shadow came sweeping in, there was not one man-made thing I could see: no power lines, no buildings or structures. Nothing tethered me to time: It could have been thousands of years ago or long into the future. In that moment, it was as if time didn’t exist.”

Giving us the ability to unhitch ourselves from time—to stop dwelling on time is a unique superpower of a total eclipse. In Russo’s work as a clinical psychologist, she notices patterns in our modern-day mentality. “People with anxiety tend to spend a lot of time in the future. And people with depression spend a lot of time in the past,” she says. An eclipse, time and time again, has the ability to snap us back into the present, at least for a few minutes. “And when you’re less anxious and worried, it opens you up to be more attuned to other people, feel more connected, care for others and be more compassionate,” Goldy says.

Russo, who founded Being in the Shadow, an organization that provides information about total solar eclipses and organizes eclipse events around the world, has experienced this firsthand. Venue managers regularly tell her that eclipse crowds are among the most polite and humble: they follow the rules; they pick up their garbage—they care.

Eclipses remind us that we are part of something bigger, that we are connected with something vast. In the hours before and after totality you have to wear protective glasses to look at the sun, to prevent damage to your eyes. But during the brief time when the moon blocks the last of the sun’s rays, you can finally lower your glasses and look directly at the eclipse. It’s like making eye contact with the universe.

“In my practice, usually if someone says, ‘I feel insignificant,’ that’s a negative thing. But the meaning shifts during an eclipse,” Russo says. To feel insignificant in the moon’s shadow instead means that your sense of self shrinks, that your ego shrinks, she says.

The scale of our “big picture” often changes after witnessing the awe of totality too. “When you zoom out—really zoom out—it blows away our differences,” Goldy says. When you sit in the shadow of a celestial rock blocking the light of a star 400 times its size that burns at10,000 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface, suddenly that argument with your partner, that bill sitting on your counter or even the differences among people’s beliefs, origins or politics feel insignificant. When we shift our perspective, connection becomes boundless.

You don’t need to wait for the next eclipse to feel this way. As we travel through life, we lose our relationship with everyday awe. Remember what that feels like? It’s the way a dog looks at a treat or the way my toddler points to the “blue sky!” outside his car window in the middle of rush hour traffic. To find awe, we have to surrender our full attention to the beauty around us. During an eclipse, that comes easily. In everyday life, we may need to be more intentional.

“Totality kick-starts our ability to experience wonder,” Russo says. And with that kick start, maybe we can all use our wonderment faculties more—whether that means pausing for a moment during a morning walk, a hug or a random sunset on a Tuesday. In the continental U.S., we won’t experience another total eclipse until 2044. Let’s not wait until then to seek awe and connection.

This article is part of a special report on the total solar eclipse that will be visible from parts of the U.S., Mexico and Canada on April 8, 2024.


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