When Rumor Eclipses Science

by Denis Storey
April 4, 2024 at 10:11 AM UTC

Research suggests a solar eclipse might influence mental health but no one’s been able to prove a solid connection.

Clinical relevance: Research suggests an eclipse might influence mental health but no one’s been able to prove a solid connection.

  • Studies have explored the potential influence of celestial events on mental health, with research tracking hormone fluctuations during eclipses.
  • Social media analysis during eclipses has shown an increase in collective language and expressions of awe, suggesting a broader social impact.
  • But there’s still no proven association between eclipses and psychiatric behavior.

While celestial events – such as a solar eclipse – have long fascinated us, we’ve come a long way from documenting them in pictographs to meteorological countdowns on social media.

Their scarcity is no doubt part of their allure. North America won’t see another one for almost a decade – and the one will be limited to Alaska.

But do these natural wonders influence our mental health? And, if so, how?

Tracking Hormone Fluctuations

One 40-year-old study, for example, appeared in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, which sought to better understand “the likely effects that the total solar eclipse might produce on the behavior and circulating hormones in the blood of psychiatric patients receiving indoor treatment under their care.”

The researchers chose 13 institutionalized “psychotic cases” – eight schizophrenics, four cases of manic depressive psychosis, and one woman with what we would later call major depressive disorder.

The scientists drew blood twice daily for nearly a week before the eclipse, the day of, and for six more days after the event. Specifically, the study’s authors measured prolactin and cortisol. The researchers targeted these particular hormones because of the perceived link between them and behavior.

The result?

“Of the hormones studied… it is prolactin [that] showed an increase in titer associated with behavioral abnormalities in concerned patients during and immediately after the total solar eclipse,” the authors wrote. “Deflection in both prolactin and behavior gradually seemed to normalize over the post-eclipse period.”

A Broader Social Impact

Much more recently – in 2107 – Sean P. Goldy, a Johns Hopkins University postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and his team conducted a meta-analysis of Twitter posts from more than 28 million users during 2017’s total solar eclipse. The research team hoped to figure out if celestial activity influenced individual or groups behavior.

The research showed that those posting from within “the path of totality were more likely to use not only language that expressed awe but also language that conveyed being unified and affiliated with others.”

In short, those users tweeted more often with “we” words and more deferential language – “maybe” instead of “always”.

“Relative to individuals residing outside the eclipse’s path, individuals inside it exhibited more awe and expressed less self-focused and more prosocial, affiliative, humble, and collective language,” the researchers wrote. “Further, individuals who exhibited elevated awe surrounding the eclipse used more prosocial, affiliative, humble, and collective language relative to their pre-eclipse levels and relative to users who exhibited less awe. These findings indicate that astronomical events may play a vital collective function by arousing awe and social tendencies that orient individuals toward their collectives.”

Finally, in 2019, Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience published a paper that revealed “no real association between lunar and solar behavior and the actions of patients with psychiatric disorders.”

Eclipse Sickness?

While there appears to be no mental after-effects from witnessing a live eclipse, some argue there are physical ramifications. Some eclipse watchers over the years have reported a litany of symptoms during and after a solar eclipse. The most common complaints include fatigue, balance issues, vivid dreams, and flu-like symptoms.

No less an authority than NASA, however, has consistently disputed any scientific connection between an eclipse and human health.

“There is no physical relationship between a total solar eclipse and your health, any more than there is a relationship between your health and a new moon,” the space agency declared on its website. “Among a random sample of people, you may find such correlations from time to time but they are outnumbered by all the other occasions during which your health was excellent.“

That is, of course, unless you’re one of the 30 percent of Americans – including former President Trump – who decide to risk their eyesight by stealing a glance at the sun.

In short, research on the social and mental ramifications of celestial phenomena is scarce. And what does exist does little to establish any real connection between a solar eclipse and mental health.

Further reading

Why Drugs and Hormones May Interact in Psychiatric Disorders

Glucometabolic Hormones and Cardiovascular Risk Markers

Gender and Schizophrenia

Original Research

The Relationship of Anxious Arousal With Treatment of Dysphoria Using Virtual Reality Mindfulness and 2 Accelerated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Protocols

Baseline levels of anxious arousal were not predictive of outcomes of treatment with VR or accelerated TMS.

Austin M. Spitz and others

Case Report

The Psychiatric Presentation of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

This case highlights the difficulty in controlling symptoms such as agitation and visual hallucinations in patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Beatrice M. Thungu and others