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The psychology of the eclipse: 'You just feel connected with everybody'

by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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Something unusual will happen when the sun goes away during the solar eclipse Monday: People will scream and weep, euphoria will fill the air, and strangers will embrace as the eerie darkness descends.

Call it shock and awe for the human brain.

Psychologist Kate Russo has seen it over and over again. She travels the world seeking out total solar eclipses to study how they affect people, and because she herself finds the experience so powerful.

“It’s one of these very unusual events — it breaks down any barriers that are there,” Russo told TODAY. “During those moments and afterwards, you just feel connected with everybody.”

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Monday’s big event, nicknamed the “Great American Eclipse,” will be her eleventh time watching a total solar eclipse. She’ll have lots of company: The celestial show promises to bring the U.S. together like no other event in recent years.

About two-thirds of Americans live within a day's drive of the path of the 70-mile-wide path of totality — where day will turn into night for about two minutes — and millions are expected to travel to see the full spectacle.

Millions more will simply head outside to a local park or community event to watch a partial eclipse — visible in all of North America. They’ll look at the sky (with protective eclipse viewing glasses!), not at their phones, and they’ll be in groups, not alone.

“It’s neat that we have the chance to have this real shared experience,” said Cynthia Pury, a psychology professor at Clemson University. “I grew up in the ‘80s and I remember everybody watched TV to see who shot JR. We don’t really have as many of those unifying events anymore. That also gives this particular eclipse an extra specialness to it.”

Pury wants to know how the spectacle will affect people, and she’s inviting the public to share their feelings in a survey before and after they see the eclipse. The results will help her study the experience of awe — an immensely powerful, mostly positive emotion inspired by a sense of vastness of the universe.

Those who have already seen a total eclipse call it a transcendent, profound and transformative experience.

“It elevates us… but it also humbles us. We are small people on a small planet being shown this grand cosmic spectacle,” said Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine editor-at-large, in an interview with CNBC.

“It really reminds you: No matter how proud we are of our 21st century empirical brains, I had kind of a 12th century fear as I was watching it because it’s the cosmos behaving like it’s not supposed to.”

Indeed, eclipses have terrified people for centuries. Some ancient cultures believed a dragon was devouring the sun; others thought it was a sign of a god’s anger.

Even in the scientific age, all sorts of misconceptions remain, with some people fearing that eclipses are omens of something bad about to happen or that they will poison any food that's prepared during the event. NASA maintains a web page debunking those myths.

Russo, the psychologist and eclipse chaser, understands why people are unsettled. The light is strange and people have no idea that the world can exist in this particular way, so they react with a primitive fear. But she believes that if every person could experience a total solar eclipse, the world would be a better place.

“It gives you the potential to understand that there are much bigger things happening than the trivial concerns or our preoccupation with differences,” Russo said.

“You feel insignificant, but part of something greater. That feeling of connection we have is something that’s really bonding and you realize we are all human beings standing in this particular moment, having the same experience, regardless of what color, background, religion we come from.”

“People who don’t know each other are hugging. It’s wonderful.”

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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