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Deeper Insights into the Solar Eclipse Experience: Piloting Project AWE

This paper discusses the potential for capturing the ineffable experience of totality using biometric measures and describes a pilot project undertaken during the Annular Solar Eclipse on October 14, 2023.

Published onMar 08, 2024
Deeper Insights into the Solar Eclipse Experience: Piloting Project AWE


The totality experience is widely recognized as intense, triggering unexpected physical reactions and emotions that many find difficult to convey in words.  Project Awe explores the possibility of capturing and quantifying the embodied experience of events such as totality, using biometric measures. This pilot study was the first attempt to capture our embodied reactions to the annular solar eclipse. The lead investigator, along with five volunteers, were fitted with EEG headsets and heart-rate monitors to capture physiological responses to observing the annular solar eclipse.  The study revealed changes in brain activity characteristic of awe in all participants.  The identification of a singular 'awe' variable enabled moments of awe and frustration to be identified at times of cloud cover, clear viewing, and during annularity.   The insights gained from this pilot study offer valuable groundwork for future exploration of the ineffable nature of totality and other awe-inspiring events. 

1. Introduction

Since my unexpectedly transformative encounter with my first total solar eclipse in 1999, I've been captivated by the profound emotional reactions eclipses elicit. Through my independent research program, I've delved into the essence of this celestial phenomenon. Surveys and interviews in Total Addiction (2012) have pinpointed commonalities in the totality experience. Phenomenological interviews, like those in Being in the Shadow (2017), have unveiled how individuals make sense of their experience, unraveling elements like insignificance, connection, awe, and euphoria.

Despite the total solar eclipse being widely celebrated for its awe-inspiring and immersive nature, understanding the intensity remains challenging for those who haven't yet experienced totality. Those of us who have stood within the Moon’s shadow express that words fall short in capturing the essence of the phenomenon. The struggle to bridge the gap between our felt experience and the limitations of language is what is known as 'the ineffable.'

The totality experience prompts a visceral response—an amalgamation of unease and fascination upon witnessing our natural world bathed in an unfamiliar light. A sense of impending doom accompanies the sudden and dramatic arrival of the Moon’s shadow, heralding the absence of our ever-constant life force—the Sun. While we understand what is happening, our embodied reactions manifest as goosebumps, chills, and a 'primal fear,' swiftly followed by intense positive emotions of awe and euphoria. This physical and emotional rollercoaster unfolds over the course of several minutes, broadening our worldview as we comprehend the grander scale of our existence.

But what if there were a means to convey the embodied experience of totality without succumbing to the limitations of language? This is the aim of my new research program – Project Awe – which will explore our experience of awe in natural settings. In a growing research approach known as neurophenomenology, delving deep into a small number of individuals, rather than looking at group comparisons or differences, allows us to get closer to the universal.

1.1 Capturing the ineffable

Awe is a complex emotion that transcends cultural boundaries and plays a central role in the overall experience of totality. Phenomenological descriptions of awe indicate that it is an immersive experience, leaving little room for rumination, distraction, or tending to other tasks. Our understanding of awe has been largely driven by the long-term work of Dacher Keltner and his team (Allen, 2018; Keltner, 2023).

Advances in technology have expanded our ability to study human emotions. Biometric data is now being used to gain insights into our embodied emotional experience, including our experience of awe. In clinical settings, changes in fMRI activity points to objective markers of awe (Van Elk et al, 2019). In natural environments, greater connection with the surroundings can result in an awe state. EEG-based studies demonstrate that reduced mid-line frontal theta (i.e. internal processing) is a key biomarker for the experience of awe in natural environments, along with increased heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) (Hopman et al., 2021)

My introduction to the potential of mobile EEG headsets occurred during a conference in New Zealand in December 2022. While presenting my research on the transformative impact of totality on groups and societies, Drew Bailey shared his findings on changes in brainwaves during immersion in natural environments and states of flow. Our discussions opened up exciting possibilities, and Drew's expertise in this specialized area propelled my research project significantly closer to the overarching goal of bridging the elusive gap in describing the ineffable experience of totality. We decided to join forces for this research collaboration while under the shadow of the Moon (Figure 1).

Two people looking at the camera
Figure 1

Kate Russo and Drew Bailey discussing possible research collaboration while attending a conference in New Zealand, Dec 2022.  (c) 2022, Kate Russo

1.2 Project Awe – A Pilot

The annular solar eclipse on October 14, 2023 provided the perfect opportunity for a pilot study using this novel approach. While annularity may not be as profound as totality, it provided a unique opportunity to test the feasibility of this research program.

As Partnership Coordinator for Uvalde County, Texas, I created the 'Solar Eclipse Village' - a weekend-long event in Garner State Park, a location within the eclipse crossroads of the annual solar eclipse on October 14, 2023 and the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. Saturday October 14 featured the annular eclipse, with programming from morning to late evening. At this location, the solar eclipse started at 10:22am, with annularity occurring at 11:50am with a duration of 4 minutes and 58 seconds, with the end of the eclipse at 1:30pm. The Moon obscured 91% of the Sun during annularity, leaving the characteristic 'ring of fire '. The Solar Eclipse Village was the perfect setting for the Project Awe pilot.

2. Methodology

During an early morning presentation on Project Awe, we demonstrated the pilot project and what was required by setting me up as the researcher participant and explaining the protocol. Drew then selected five adults from a pool of eager volunteers based on their anatomical compatibility with standard headsets and heart rate straps.

For each participant, an Emotiv Headset with five passive sensors was used to capture EEG brainwaves over two hours to include annularity (Figure 2). Heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) were concurrently measured using a Polar ECG chest strap (Figure 3). The raw data were transmitted to mobile phones provided to each participant at a rate of 128 Hz and then transferred to the project website (https: // via wifi (Figure 4). The University of TN, Chattanooga (UTC), supplied all technological equipment.

One person sitting while a standing person behind them puts something on his head.
Figure 2

Drew fitting the Emotiv headset on a volunteer to measure brainwave activity. (c) 2023, Kate Russo

A person sitting down looks at something in the hands of another person who is standing up next to him.
Figure 3

Drew instructing a volunteer how to fit the chest strap to capture Heart Rate Variability. (c) 2023, Kate Russo

One person standing looks at a phone in the hands in another person facing them.
Figure 4

Drew setting up the mobile phone given to each participant which records and transmits the data to the project website, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

Drew fitted the headsets and heart monitors, provided standardized instructions, and established baseline biometrics for all participants. After a one-minute group calibration exercise, participants were allowed to move around, observe the eclipse, and engage in chosen activities. Drew continued to monitor real-time data feeds on the live project website (Figure 5 and Figure 6), addressing any issues that could interfere with data collection.

website showing data along with bottom as peaks
Figure 5

Project Awe website showing live data of three participants (viewer two = Kate Russo), (c) 2023, Kate Russo

adult standing and looking at something on a computer
Figure 6

Drew keeping a watchful eye over the incoming data for all volunteers and smoothing out any tech issues as they occur, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

Post-fitting, I assumed my roles as event coordinator, master of ceremonies, and supported the eclipse outreach activities. Throughout the eclipse, I circulated amongst the crowd across the viewing field, recording brief interviews, and, in the final minutes before annularity, used a microphone to guide the crowd's observations (Figure 7).

Person smiling at the camera
Figure 7

Kate Russo hooked up and returning to MC the Eclipse Day activities, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

Sun during annular eclipse behind clouds
Figure 8

The cloudy ‘Ring of Fire’ annular eclipse with clouds providing a natural filter unexpectedly moments before annularity, wowing us all, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

Around 15 minutes after annularity, I participated in a live video broadcast with (Figure 9), initially focusing on celebrations and the eclipse experience before delving into the pilot study while the EEG recordings were still in progress. Drew then joined me and shared live interpretations of the data collected, utilizing my live EEG recordings via the project website. Following this, brief interviews were undertaken with several of the participants.

Two people on a zoom call talking to each other
Figure 9

Live 20-minute session with Paul Cox at after annularity, talking about the emotional impact of solar eclipses and sharing Project Awe in action, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

two adults looking up with solar safety glasses on
Figure 10

Co-Investigators Kate Russo and Drew Bailey taking a moment to enjoy the solar eclipse together before the end of data collection, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

Post-eclipse, participants were encouraged to return to the Project Box at their convenience, for removal of all technical equipment (Figure 11). Drew then presented initial feedback, including sharing preliminary graphs with the large audience, during the eclipse debrief session.

two people smiling at the camera
Figure 11

Kate Russo and another volunteer returning to base at the end of the solar eclipse for removal of recording devices, (c) 2023, Kate Russo

3. Results – Quantifying the ineffable

All participants, myself included, reported being in awe during annularity. The peak awe moment mentioned by all participants was when the cloud thinned just before annularity, creating a natural filter for fleeting naked-eye viewing of the 'ring of fire.' It was an impressive sight, shattering my pre-conceptions that awe may not be experienced during annularity.

Previous findings suggest that an awe-inducing experience would be positive, mentally engaging, and leaving little room for distraction. Thus, one would anticipate higher levels of enjoyment (frontal asymmetry), engagement (fronto-parietal activation), and reduced levels of inward processing (frontal theta) during annularity than at base line. Findings largely confirm the results of previous research on awe in natural settings (Figure 12).

EKG data
Figure 12

Raw data from Kate Russo's EEG recordings, with the moment of annularity highlighted, showing changes in brainwave activity characteristic of awe. (c) 2023, Drew Bailey

After cleaning the data and removing noisy EEG segments, analyses were conducted on a total of 91,152 data points. Intermittent clouds complicated viewing during this event, but also provided clear windows where participants were uniformly engaged in viewing the eclipse. When the eclipse was in view, neuro-markers for positive engagement (i.e. increased beta and gamma waves in the frontal and parietal lobes) were elevated, and indicators of mind-wandering and disengagement (i.e. alpha and theta waves) diminished.

For parsimony, a single “Awe” variable (Positive engagement/distraction) was created to demonstrate the experience over multiple timepoints. Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) revealed a significant difference for Awe over the course of the experience (F = 30.331, p <.001).

Interestingly, characteristic changes in our brainwaves indicating awe were noted not just at that peak moment, but throughout the solar eclipse. As shown in Figure 13, participants experienced Awe at first sight of the partial eclipse, when the clouds parted. They then experienced frustration at timepoint 3, when visibility was low with annularity nearing. Finally, Awe hit a peak when the clouds parted during full annularity.

graph of awe over time, line up and down
Figure 13

Changes in awe as the eclipse progressed

4. Discussion: Navigating the Challenges and Learning Lessons

This pilot project provided invaluable insights into researching the embodied emotions and the human-nature relationship during a solar eclipse.

Firstly, the identification of a single 'awe' variable offers a way to capture and assess the ineffability of this natural event over time. One unexpected finding was the occurrence of awe at various stages throughout the eclipse, and not just during the peak moment of annularity. Some may take comfort in the fact that a predominantly cloudy annular solar eclipse was still able to strongly elicit an awe response in all participants.

Secondly, this pilot indicated that other changes in mental responses may be worthy of exploring further, such as heightened introspection immediately after the event. We are now able to pinpoint moments of intensity that will help us delve even further into the lived experience.

Finally, the pilot study gave us insights into recruitment approaches, required timing, strategies to mitigate issues like absent readings and headset interference, and, naturally, ways to control for confounding variables when exploring awe during the total solar eclipse.

5. Conclusion

The pilot study confirms the viability of capturing biometric data in the field to convey the embodied experience of awe-inspiring events such as solar eclipses. Seeing the EEG changes elicited during the cloudy annular solar eclipse has excited us about what we will capture during our more profound and dramatic responses to the experience of totality.

Regrettably, we have been unable to secure funding for a more comprehensive exploration of Project AWE during the total solar eclipse in April 2024. Nevertheless, this study provides valuable insights to inform the next round of phenomenological interviews planned after the 2024 total solar eclipse. Despite setbacks, Project AWE persists in its pursuit of understanding the ineffable.

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