The Psychological Impact of the 2024 Solar Eclipse

Many Americans will experience the wonders of the celestial world when the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse occurs on April 8. For those set to experience the eclipse in totality, expect to feel a sense of awe.

A study conducted during the 2017 solar eclipse found onlookers experienced associations of awe, especially those who witnessed the eclipse’s complete totality, which occurs when the moon completely covers the sun and reveals the star’s outer atmosphere known as the corona.

The research produced by the University of California, Irvine hoped to perform a large-scale study that evaluated how individuals experienced the 2017 solar eclipse in the real world. To obtain large amounts of data, investigators needed a suitable source.

Sean Goldy is a researcher at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Conscious Research and was the lead on the 2017 eclipse study while completing his doctoral degree at UCI. In order to garner large suitable sets of data, Goldy says his team turned to social media.

“There is this rich history in psychology and other fields of using other people's words as a window into their thoughts and feelings, and so we knew we could capture these constructs we wanted to look at,” Goldy tells Healthnews. "We wanted to look at emotion and related things, like social connection. Twitter (X) ended up being the optimal way for us to go about that.”

The research was separated into two parts, with Study 1 evaluating X (Twitter) posts on the day of the eclipse from those in the path of totality versus those outside the path — known as a partial eclipse. Goldy says through the language in the posts, researchers were able to uncover high associations of awe and a sense of community among those in the path of the eclipse. Study 1 evaluated 8,730,085 tweets from nearly 3 million users, 39,091 of which were in the path of totality.

Using words like 'we,' 'our,' and 'us,' or using pro-sociality — like talking about thanks and gratitude — that was fantastic to see. Also, we found at least in study 1, that people in the path were less likely to express this self-focus language of words like 'I,' 'me,' and 'mine.'

Goldy

In Study 2, researchers evaluated Twitter (X) posts before, during, and after the eclipse to better test how awe shifted due to the eclipse. The ability to see how words shifted over time allowed researchers Goldy and his team to uncover individuals in the path of totality were more likely to express humility. For this study, researchers obtained 1,543,357 tweets from 22,361 users.

"We saw increases in humility among people who were in the path of the eclipse and people who were especially awed by it," says Goldy. "We measured humility by looking up words that conveyed a sense of tentativeness, this would be using words like maybe or perhaps, rather than always, all the time, never, and absolutely.”

Along with a large data pool, Goldy notes many similar studies are conducted in lab settings with a viewer witnessing the event in a room on a computer. The layout of this study provided investigators with a unique way of capturing instant emotions in real-time in the real world.

“The effects we found here were enormous compared to other things that have been in the literature,” Goldy says. “Kind of hitting home that this large-scale event out in nature was pretty awe-inspiring compared to if you had somebody sitting at a desk and watching planet Earth on a computer monitor.”

Unlike the 2017 eclipse, the 2024 edition comes at a time when many Americans are struggling with depression and anxiety. A 2022 KFF/CNN survey found nearly four in 10 American adults were struggling with symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In their study, Goldy says there was some evidence of anxiety and anxiousness being relieved due to the total solar eclipse’s wonder. He expects onlookers in 2024 to experience the same sense of awe as those in 2017.

“I would think even now, just from talking to people who are eclipse chasers and go after it year after year, it is still this mind-blowing thing to those people. I’m optimistic these events can still invoke awe, whether it might be even more so than in other years, that is hard to say.”

Who will see the 2024 total solar eclipse?

NASA says the 2024 solar eclipse will encompass 31.6 million people who live in the path of totality compared to 12 million in 2017. This year’s totality path ranges between 108 and 122 miles, covering more ground than the totality of the 2017 eclipse, which ranged from 62 to 71 miles.

Texas is the best location to view the eclipse in the United States, with totality lasting four minutes and 26 seconds at the center of the eclipse’s path. Those located further north near Economy, Indiana will also witness totality longer than four minutes. The 2024 total eclipse will pass through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Some locations in Michigan and Tennessee may also experience a total eclipse.

U.S. metro areas that can expect eclipse totality:

  • Dallas, Texas
  • Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Burlington, Vermont

For those located in these areas, or planning to travel there, prepare to be awe-struck. Astronomical phenomena have wowed people and impacted human behavior from as long as we can document — it doesn't seem like this year will be any different.


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