What Solar Eclipses Can Teach Us About Being Human

Clinical psychologist Kate Russo saw her first total solar eclipse in 1999 on the coast of France—fulfilling one of the bucket-list items she dreamt up as a teenager. Little did she know that the experience would change her life and determine the course of her career.

“After it happened, I was so, so gobsmacked and so surprised. I thought I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t,” she recalls. “I just knew that I had to see another one.”

“Eclipse-chasers” aim to put themselves in what’s called the path of totality, the thin region where the sun is completely blocked out. Next Monday, a solar eclipse will occur where the path of totality arcs across the entire United States, offering Americans a unique opportunity to witness this astronomical phenomenon.

While partial eclipses are interesting—many people who recall seeing an eclipse probably saw a partial one—total eclipses are breathtaking. Full darkness descends as the moon blocks the sun and its shadow covers the Earth.

Since 1999, Russo has traveled around the globe, from Mongolia to Madagascar, to witness 10 total solar eclipses. (They occur somewhere about once every 18 months, although any given city will only see a total solar eclipse every 375 years.) She has also embarked on a research program to document and analyze the experiences of eclipse-chasers, publishing her findings in the books Total Addiction and Being in the Shadow.

We checked in with Russo, who plans to view next Monday’s eclipse from Wyoming, to learn why eclipses are such powerful experiences—and what that says about humanity.

Kira M. Newman: Based on your research and interviews, what are the common elements of the experience of viewing a total eclipse?

Dr. Kate Russo: My survey data was interesting because it showed me that, again and again, the eclipse-chasers were saying the same things. It was so amazing. For the first time, I was like, Oh my god, I’m not the only crazy one here! There is something about this experience that is so profound and really life-changing. I basically teased out the common elements of it, and it creates an acronym called SPACED.

What happens is that you’re standing there waiting for it to happen, and there’s this “sense of wrongness”—that’s the S. You’re picking up that there’s something in the environment that really is not right. This is the element that’s very hard to describe to people who haven’t seen it, because they just imagine that it goes from day to night, and we all experience that every day. But there’s something otherworldly that happens; you just cannot communicate to other people how weird the environment gets. We pick up on a very primitive level that this is not right, that this is wrong; it’s like the rules of nature are turned on their head and it’s just too eerie.

And then that leads to a primal fear. The hair on the back of our neck stands up, we get goosebumps, and this is the moment where the shadow comes towards us. You’re looking at the sky and there’s this creeping darkness; it’s so ominous and really wrong and we just think, What is going on? So, that’s the P, the “primal fear.”

And then as totality comes above you and the darkness descends, and you’re standing there in the shadow of the moon and you’re looking up and you’re seeing the eclipsed sun, it’s just the most spectacular thing you’ve seen. I know you’ve seen photos of it, but to actually see it with your naked eye is just mind-blowing; it’s incredible. That’s when we get that sense of complete “awe”—that’s the A.

                                                                             **© Kieron Circuit**

We know the emotion of awe involves vastness: We get a sense of the significance of something and how powerful it is in relation to us, and so we feel insignificant ourselves. We have to actually change our mental structures to help us understand what we’re seeing because it’s just so vast, so huge.

I think the awe we experience during a total solar eclipse is very unique because it is the universe that we are experiencing. When you think about it, you are actually standing in the shadow of the moon, which is a solar object out there, and it’s the shadow that’s passing over us—that’s what the darkness is. Therefore, the moon is a three-dimensional object—and if that’s how vast it is, how much further does the universe extend? I believe it’s probably the strongest awe we can feel, apart from going into space and seeing our little planet from above.

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