Idaho-ology

Why can’t I explain the total eclipse?

Having a hard time explaining your total eclipse experience to friends who missed totality? You’re not alone. Dr. Kate Russo witnessed her first total solar eclipse in Europe in 1999 and was enthralled. “I felt time stop,” she says, but she couldn’t figure out why. After traveling to Madagascar in 2001 to see another, she felt the same euphoria, even though she knew what to expect in the sky.

Russo, a trained clinical psychologist, decided then that she had experienced a powerful human event that deserved further study. She began conducting research, talking to people all over the world who had seen multiple eclipses, assuming that they would be better equipped to process the emotions they felt. Gratifyingly to Russo, the responses she received turned out to have real consistencies. She sums up the key common feelings in an acronym: SPACED.

  • Sense of wrongness. Russo says this often begins about five minutes before totality, when light and shadows truly begin acting in ways they don’t normally.
  • Primal fear. Just before totality, we know intellectually what’s coming, but it still feels ominous.
  • Awe. A sense of deference or insignificance in the presence of something greater.
  • Connection. Feeling tied to that something bigger, whether it’s the vastness of the universe, nature, or deity.
  • Euphoria. This is especially present in the final moments of totality.
  • Desire to repeat.

So there’s your answer – there just aren’t many other human experiences that carry all of these emotions. Russo says the best analogy might be – as heavy as it sounds – becoming a parent, simply because it’s a profound natural experience that causes people to forever see things from a different perspective. Other, more modest comparisons include sharing a great rock concert with thousands of fans (you just had to be there) or taking LSD. Russo says those don’t quite cut it, though, because they’re man-made experiences, so the primal-ness can be harder to come by. She’s also quick to note that those who get high hoping to enhance the eclipse experience typically find the opposite to be true, and they have trouble recalling details afterward.

Russo spoke at the Museum of Idaho on August 30. She has now seen 11 total solar eclipses, although two of them – in China and the Faroe Islands – were clouded over. She watched this last one atop a ski hill in Teton Village. She has authored three books on the human eclipse experience and still enjoys collecting others’ stories. You can reach her at beingintheshadow.com.

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