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The Upcoming Solar Eclipse Is a Natural Wonder

So too, is the brain we use to view it.

Key points

  • Humans have long tried to understand and track the relationship between the earth, sun, and moon.
  • We are fascinated by the eclipse that will be visible across North American on April 8, 2024.
  • We should save some of our awe, however, for the brains that enable us to experience such events.

On Monday April 8th, the moon will pass in front of the sun creating an eclipse. Viewers on a path from Texas to Maine will see a total eclipse while the rest of the country will see a partial version. Although solar eclipses occur every few years, fewer people see them when they occur over empty land or the ocean. The next North American eclipse won’t happen until 2033, over Alaska. So, it is not surprising that the 2024 eclipse has become a social phenomenon as well as a natural event.

Local weathercasters are conducting eclipse countdowns, universities are organizing viewing parties and media producers from podcasters to national news outlets are planning how to cover the event. In the Texas Hill country, where people will be able to see the total eclipse weather permitting, campsites and hotel rooms have been booked for months. Small-town administrators there are worried about traffic jams, parking, and porta-potty availability while individuals try to determine how best to view the eclipse in the midst of a busy Monday. The scientific/party atmosphere being created around this event is a logical outgrowth of our entertainment focused, technologically driven world.

This is certainly not the way such solar events were viewed in the past. In the absence of scientific data and media announcements, they often appeared to occur, literally, out of the blue. When the sky darkened and animals became quiet, our ancestors sometimes thought that supernatural powers were bringing the world to an end. In ancient China, it was believed that a dragon was eating the sun, some Native Americans cited a hungry bear, and the Vikings blamed sky wolves. Although early astronomers became adept at tracking the movements of the sun, moon, and planets in order to predict their unusual patterns, they lacked the media infrastructure necessary to warn the public in general. On more than one occasion the occurrence of an eclipse changed the course of history. In 430 BC Herodotus, a Greek historian wrote of a war that ended because day turned to night, causing the combatants to seek a peace agreement.

While we know far more about eclipses than the people who came before us, we share one thing in common. We wouldn’t be able to see, understand or talk about eclipses without our incredibly complex brains. Since eclipses are rare, we observe them with wonder, but the daily actions of our brain are just as miraculous. We can only watch the eclipse because neurons in our brain, fueled by glucose, use electrical and chemical signals to transmit information. When light hits the neurons in our eyes, they relay signals to an area in the back of the brain called the occipital lobe which integrates and organizes visual input enabling us to recognize patterns, fill in missing information, and detect motion. These visual processes take time though, so our perception of what we are seeing is delayed by about 100 milliseconds. To compensate, the brain makes predictions about what will happen so we can attempt to respond in real time. Otherwise, we would be unable to avoid car accidents or hit a baseball because our response would be too late.

Recognizing the basic characteristics of an object is only the beginning of our perceptual journey. We also need to identify it, to determine whether it is something we have seen before and or something new, to assess whether it is something we can ignore or should focus on, and to assess its contextual meaning. Not only does our brain do this continuously, but it coordinates this visual input with incoming and existing information and uses emotional responses to motivate appropriate behavioral responses. As a result, we can respond rapidly to a changing environment, remember names, faces and experiences and create banks of knowledge for future use. When things we don’t understand occur, we use our ability to reason, to generate and test hypotheses, and to come up with alternative explanations.

Because the upcoming eclipse is a rare event, we are likely to pay attention to it. Our visual system will register the details (assuming we wear protective glasses to protect the photoreceptor cells in our retina) and our cortex will note the strangeness of the sky darkening in the middle of the day and birds going quiet. Because we know it is a natural phenomenon, we won’t need to rely on supernatural explanations for its occurrence but will still find it awe-inspiring. After it is over, we will continue to think about what it meant, talk about it with others, and remember even years later what the event meant to us.

Ironically, from a brain point of view, paying attention to the sun isn't even that novel since we routinely use the 24-hour light-dark cycles found in the natural world to regulate body functions including hormone levels, temperature and sleep cycles. In the regular course of events we only register these cycles when we disrupt them by staying up all night or traveling across time zones. In the end, we should be just as awed by how well our brains work as we are by viewing a solar eclipse. Miracles occur in many forms. Appreciating them whenever we can is good for our mental health.


More from Mary McNaughton-Cassill Ph.D.
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