Total Eclipses: Totally Emotional

At about 11:35 a.m. Mountain Time on Monday, August 21, Dr. Kate Russo, looking into the sky from a Wyoming mountaintop, will experience her 11th total eclipse of the sun.

The choice of the verb “experience” is intentional. One does not simply “watch” a total eclipse. These rare spectacles spark intense emotional reactions—everything from slack-jawed awe to spiritual exhilaration to primal fear.

Russo, a former clinical psychologist and current eclipse chaser, has been studying these events—and people’s reactions—since 1999. Personally, she’s magnetically drawn to solar eclipses for the strong feelings and memories they produce. Professionally, she observes and analyzes the wide range of emotions of people who look upward, and inward, during those magical, mysterious minutes of being in the shadow of the moon.

Kate Russo, psychologist and eclipse chase | ORBITER magazineBeing in the Shadow is also the title of her new book, in which Russo interviewed many who have experienced total eclipses. From the back cover: “[T]hese individuals shuddered with fear and anticipation as the light dimmed, the temperature dropped, and then suddenly their world plunged into an eerie darkness. They gazed in awe at the eclipsed Sun, feeling a sense of connection and unexpectedly gaining new life insights.”

In another book, Total Addiction, Russo notes that some people even have experiences that are, well, rather sensual. She writes of the impact of “totality,” that moment during an eclipse when the Sun is entirely occluded by the moon. “Emotions are intense,” she writes, “with some breathing heavily, screaming, or crying.” Endorphins are released, resulting in euphoria. She calls it an “intellectual orgasm.”

Russo, a former assistant course director at Queen’s University Belfast, is an expert in Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), the science of studying people’s subjective experiences.

ORBITER magazine caught up with Russo recently to talk about the eclipse, her experiences, and her observations of people’s reactions.

ORBITER: Where will you be for the eclipse? 

Kate Russo: Grand Teton National Park, leading a tour of 33 international eclipse chasers. We’re going up in one of the gondolas and viewing from up top. We’re going to have a great view.

You saw your first eclipse in 1999 in France. Tell me about that.

I’ve always loved travel. When we went to France, I thought it was just going to be another travel destination, that I would enjoy the eclipse, and that would be it — that I would just go on to the next travel adventure. I had no idea that it would be so awesome. You hear about how it goes dark during the day, and on one level you understand that. But when it actually happens, it’s so out of the ordinary and unexpected, it just blows your mind. You can’t communicate the rush of emotions — the primal fear, the hair standing up on the back of your neck, the goosebumps, the euphoria, the excitement of feeling at one with the universe. It’s all so powerful, and then it’s over.

I knew that my life had been touched in a way that I was changed. I knew from that moment that I needed to see this again. And my second totality experience really anchored it into me. This is not just a once off. This is something I want to do for the rest of my life. And over the last five years, most of my spare time is devoted to researching and writing about them, blending my career as a psychologist into my career as an eclipse chaser. Now they’re very much merged into one.

Let’s explore the science of the wide range of emotions. People experience awe. People collapse, weeping. People call it a spiritual experience. And so much more. It seems to be more than just the kind of awe we feel when looking at the Grand Canyon or an amazing sunset. What’s going on here?

It is above and beyond those other types of experiences. Are you familiar with the overview effect? It happens when astronauts go into space and see Earth from completely outside, and they have this complete transformative experience. When they come back to Earth, they understand how fragile our world is, and they become really focused on sharing this with other people. So I guess the total solar eclipse experience is as close as we can get to that “overview effect” on Earth.

What separates us humans from animals in our experience of a total solar eclipse? Dairy cows return to the barn, crickets chirp, birds roost, whales breach. What makes humans unique?

Animals are just responding to things going dark. We all — humans, animals, plants, bacteria — have circadian rhythms that respond to the changes in light. Animals are much more primitive than us, and their changes in behavior are much more rapid. But humans don’t immediately change our behavior when the light dims. In totality, we are aware of what’s going on, but animals aren’t. There’s still a primitive part of us that is aware that something out of the ordinary is happening, that we need to pay attention. Our bodies are picking up that something is really strange, putting us on “high alert.” We seem to take everything in, and we’re just hypervigilant to everything around us — the rapid changes in light, the shadows, the temperature, the changes in the wind. Animals pick up on it too, but we’re able to reflect on it as intelligent beings.

“There’s still a primitive part of us that is aware that something out of the ordinary is happening, that we need to pay attention. Our bodies are picking up that something is really strange, putting us on ‘high alert.’

We seem to take everything in, and we’re just hypervigilant to everything around us — the rapid changes in light, the shadows, the temperature, the changes in the wind.”


Kate Russo, psychologist and eclipse chaser

You’ve interviewed a lot of people about their eclipse experiences. Share one of those stories.

In my new book, Being in the Shadow, I feature six people who are experiencing their first eclipse. I did a lot of in-depth interviews — in the lead-up to the eclipse, what they did to get into the path of totality, how it unfolded, and what it meant to them.

I featured an Australian couple who only coincidentally had moved into the path of totality a year before the eclipse; they didn’t even know an eclipse was coming. But when they started hearing about it, they reacted differently. The husband was more of a science person, and he realized that this would be an interesting thing to see. But the wife knew little about eclipses, and didn’t think it would be very interesting or exciting. As the day of the eclipse drew closer, she started hearing more about it in the media. And then she heard me on the radio, talking about what it was like to experience totality, and she started to change. She began to think of it as something she could be interested in as a human experience rather than a science event. She started reading and researching everything, bought solar filters, started talking it up to friends, and got really excited about it.

They went camping in the path of totality, and they found a remote spot that overlooked the outback. The night before, they saw hundreds of people camping in the outback with all their lights on, and she said it looked like fireflies, just a magical moment. On eclipse day, when totality came, she knew she could remove her solar glasses during totality and look at it with her naked eye — she had done her research! But her “science husband” had not done his research, so he freaked out and started yelling, “Look away! Protect your eyes!”

But he eventually looked too, and it was incredibly powerful for them. They thought it was incredible, and they celebrated. They ended up taking time to reflect on their lives and what was important. And they came home to tell others about the experience, and found it very difficult to communicate how special it was.

How do people process it, or try to make sense of it?

We all experience intense emotions, but we all make sense of it in our own way—because of our different backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, whatever.

I use the acronym of SPACED to describe it:

  • S is a sense of wrongness, that something’s wrong in the environment.
  • P is for primal fear, that primitive feeling of the hair on the back of your neck pricking up, that feeling that we have to pay attention.
  • A is for awe, a central part of the totality experience.
  • C is for connectedness, where you feel insignificant but connected to something greater.
  • E is for euphoria you’ll feel as it ends.
  • D is the desire to repeat the experience. That’s the most common question for first timers: “When is the next eclipse?”

You said people feel connected to something greater. I’ve heard some people describe it as a spiritual experience.

Kate Russo, psychologist and eclipse chase | ORBITER magazine

True, but spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious. In my first book, Total Addiction, I interviewed someone who has a Christian background, and when she talks about this connectedness, she’s feeling a connection with a greater being, and she feels that to be God, and she ascribes meaning to that. I’ve interviewed people in other cultures, with Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, and how they interpret the feelings of connection is different — but they still feel that connection.

That spiritual connectedness is a powerful psychological thing. I recently interviewed a guy who lost his mother when he was 11 years old. He had become a free spirit since then, but during an eclipse, he experienced that connection to something greater. He actually had that his feeling that his mom was there; he felt her presence absolutely at that moment all around him. It was so unexpected for him, that connection. But that’s how experienced it.

Does chasing eclipses ever get old for you?

In Total Addiction, I address the idea of habituation. That’s the notion that when we experience something exciting again and again, the novelty can wear off and the excitement level reduces over time. The theory of habituation would say that the novelty of solar eclipses would wear off too, but that hasn’t been my experience, or that of the many eclipse chasers I’ve interviewed. There are so many things that are so different each time that the novelty can’t wear off. It only happens once about every 18 months somewhere in the world, and always in a different location. You interact with different people in different cultures, different backgrounds, different ways of looking at things. There are always new things to experience on the ground. Each time is very unique.

That’s why chasers say that they’ll be chasing eclipses for the rest of their lives. And that’s why I’ll be chasing them too.


Learn more about Kate Russo at her website or her Facebook page.

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