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October 29, 2012
  In pursuit of awe
For a few eerie minutes on Wednesday 14 November local time, just after sunrise, people living in Northern Australia will be shrouded in darkness as the Moon falls into perfect alignment with the Sun. One person who will be returning to her homeland to witness this total eclipse is the Chartered Psychologist Kate Russo, of Queens University Belfast.

Since 1999, when she experienced her first total eclipse, Russo has become hooked. Like other 'eclipse chasers', Russo travels the world in search of these darkest of shadows. November's experience will be her eighth total eclipse.

By day, Russo helps people with chronic health conditions find meaning in their lives. She also co-directs a doctoral training programme in clinical psychology, where she is an expert in phenomenological research. Recently she's applied these professional skills to her hobby, in search of an answer to why total eclipses have such a profound effect on some people, to the extent that they'll navigate the globe repeatedly in pursuit of the next eclipse event.

In her new book Total Addiction, The Life of an Eclipse Chaser (Springer, 2012), Russo reports the results of the in-depth phenomenological interviews she's conducted with nine eclipse chasers, including the amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. The others are categorised as 'enterprising chasers', 'introspective chasers' and 'occasional chasers'.

'The experience of totality can be described as a "mystical experience with a kick",' says Russo. 'There is an eerie atmosphere in the lead-up to totality. We feel SPACED - a Sense of wrongness, Primal fear, Awe, Connection, Euphoria, and a Desire to repeat. These emotions are intense, and appear to happen in a way that affects us on a very physical level - people are often overwhelmed and unprepared for such a strong reaction. The beauty of the total eclipse itself is then revealed, leaving us in complete awe as we see the elusive corona for those few magical moments.'

The corona is an extremely high temperature atmospheric halo around the Sun. Normally it's invisible, but during a total eclipse the ghostly rays can be seen extending outwards into space. The total eclipse itself occurs every 18 months or so, when a privileged slice of the earth's surface is darkened by the Moon's apparent identical diameter completely obscuring the view of the Sun.

Coincidentally, a study is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science that explores one aspect of the eclipse experience - the effect of awe on people's time perception. Researchers at the Universities of Stanford and Minnesota, led by Melanie Rudd, used
a variety of devices to induce awe in some of their participants, including having them watch a video about astronauts in space, or describing a real-life awe experience of their own. Compared with participants who were induced to feel happy, those who experienced awe felt like they had more time, showed less impatience and were more willing to volunteer their time. They also experienced a brief boost to their life satisfaction. 'These results...underscore the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life,' the researchers said.

Watching a total eclipse is one way to find awe, with many people feeling personally changed by the event. 'There is a recognition that the experience is significant, although it is difficult to make sense of, and difficult to communicate to others,' says Russo. 'We feel we are at the edge of our language abilities. We come to understand that this cannot be a one-off event. We are hooked. Another eclipse chaser is born.'

Christian Jarrett

See for a chance to win a copy of Russo's book

Edited: 29/10/2012 at 02:29 PM by jonsut

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 29/10/2012 01:58 PM     News from the Psychologist  

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