The Overview Effect, described once by Apollo 14 crew member Edgar Mitchell as an, “explosion of awareness,” refers to the euphoric and profoundly transformative experience of viewing the earth from beyond the boundaries of its atmosphere. The surreal effect of reflecting back on the planet from space triggers an overwhelming sense of awe, a deep interconnectedness with nature, and unity with all humanity. Being a part of the Earth, while simultaneously outside of the intricate processes at work there, is an uncanny and visceral experience that can permanently impact astronauts, altering their sense of self and their relation to humanity for a lifetime.David Yaden, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, grounds the Overview Effect in contemporary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Investigating the empirical basis of self-transcendent and spiritual experiences, his research seeks the ways in which life-changing experiences like the Overview Effect positively impact psychological health, both for astronauts in space, and for the rest of us bound to our terrestrial existence.
What is the Overview Effect and why are you interested in the experience that astronauts describe?
The Overview Effect refers to viewing something familiar from afar—essentially taking a broader perspective. A paradigmatic example of the Overview Effect is seeing Earth from space.
My interest in the Overview Effect was sparked through the course of collecting accounts of self-transcendent experiences, as this is one of my core research interests. While searching for modern descriptions of these experiences, I was surprised that I kept coming across quotes from astronauts.
As it turns out, many astronauts report feelings of awe that border on intense experiences of self-transcendence, feeling temporarily like one’s sense of self is both diminished and more inter-connected. While a number of psychological explanations as to why astronauts experience these feelings had been offered, the point of my article on astronaut experiences of awe and self-transcendence was to ground these experiences in contemporary psychological concepts used in empirical research.
What kind of long-term impact has occurred in the lives of the astronauts that are said to have had this kind of experience?
I hope someday to answer this question with data through partnerships with NASA, Space-X, and Virgin Galactic, but right now we have to rely on the self-report of astronauts who been to space and who have described intense experiences associated with the Overview Effect. While many astronauts do not report feeling changed by their experience of spaceflight, we know that some astronauts report that their lives were transformed by their experience – often mentioning more feelings of gratitude and efforts to contribute to environmental and humanitarian causes.
How does neuroscience explain this?
The underlying neurobiology of all subjective experiences is very complex, and the Overview Effect is no exception. So it’s important not to be too simplistic here. However, in laboratory studies we are following up on some brain regions that seem to play important roles in this experience. For example, one region (of the inferior parietal lobe) that is responsible for modeling bodily boundaries appears to be less active when people feel deeply connected to their environment. As to whether these changes to brain activity were occurring in the brains of astronauts while they were experiencing the Overview Effect, we will have to wait for future research to answer that question.
“It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is… I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”
- Kathryn D. Sullivan
You explain the Overview Effect as an experience of both perceptual and conceptual vastness, can you define what these two terms mean and why the two may occur simultaneously when viewing the earth from outerspace?
The perception of vastness is part of what triggers the emotion of awe—and the Overview Effect seems to reliably trigger awe. This vastness can be “perceptual” or “conceptual.” Perceptual vastness comes from seeing something literally massive, like a monument or sweeping scenery. Conceptual vastness could come from something figuratively massive, like a grand idea, and could come from watching a great documentary or a TED talk, to give just a couple of examples. The image of Earth from orbit is both perceptually and conceptually massive—and so may be even more awe-inspiring.
How does the Overview Effect extend or challenge the concept of the Sublime that was theorized by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant?
In terms of the sublime, Edmund Burke wrote about a sense of insignificance that puts one’s life into the perspective of eternity. In collaboration with psychologist Dacher Keltner, we have found that self-diminishment is indeed a factor of most awe experiences. But as for Burke’s and Kant’s more intricate analyses related to the sublime, I am working with Robert Clewis, a philosopher who focuses on Kant and Burke, to trace the similarities and differences between historical and modern characterizations of awe and the sublime.
British astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted that “once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available...a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Do you believe he was right?
I’d say Fred Hoyle overstated his case – I can think of a lot of ideas more powerful than a photograph of the Earth from space (human rights, democracy, evolution, antibiotics, hypothesis testing, Turing machines, etc, etc, etc..).
On the other hand, Hoyle was clearly on to something. He was right to point out that an image of Earth taken from space would be important. “Earthrise” the photo of Earth from the moon taken by NASA astronaut William Anders has been called one of the most influential photographs of all time and is one of the world’s most recognizable images. Some historians have pointed out that the proliferation of this photograph coincided with the beginnings of the modern environmental movement.
Researchers have discussed the Pale-Blue-Dot viewpoint as a strong demystification of anthropocentrism. Yet, many would argue that the Space Race of the 1950's/60' as well as today's race to privatize space travel and one day reach Mars are competitions driven by anthropocentric ambition. Why is it that people feel humbled and more connected to community when reaching space, rather than a sense of dominance as if experiencing the planet from a “God’s Eye View”?
This question gets the to heart of a psychological paradox involved in viewing Earth from beyond its atmosphere and seeing how it sits in the midst of a seemingly infinite expanse of space. Many astronauts have struggled to articulate the mix of feelings this image brings up and may be a reason for why it is such a potent symbol. On the one hand, it is a human victory of courage, skill, and brilliant engineering to get a human to the point where the picture could be taken. But on the other hand, it shows us how precarious our position is in the cosmological and existential sense. For me, and I suspect many others, the notion and image of the Pale Blue Dot produces a number of seemingly paradoxical feelings, pride and humility, fear and exaltation, rapture and resolve, tenderness and triumph.
"During a spaceflight, the psyche of each astronaut is re-shaped; having seen the sun, the stars and our planet, you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.”
- Boris Volynov
What is “home” and how is it understood from the perspective of space? Is home where the astronauts are, or where they are looking back towards —at planet Earth? Do astronauts think about feeling both utterly connected to, and utterly disconnected from, Earth?
Early on in the space program there was some speculation from psychologists and psychiatrists that astronauts might experience what they called the “Break-Off” phenomenon, which they described as a traumatic sense of separation from Earth. One article on the topic even begins with a warning in the form of the story of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun.
While the Break-Off phenomenon was a reasonable hypothesis at the time, we don’t see much evidence to support it. Instead we see the Overview Effect, which is usually a profoundly positive experience.
That said – space flight is difficult and uncomfortable in so many ways, so I think at this point Earth is very much “home” for most astronauts.
Many scientists are working hard to make space flight a little more “homey,” though. Well-being during space flight is an important mission that my research team at the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of psychologist Martin Seligman, hopes to play a role in helping to enhance.
Astronauts commonly report feelings of heightened awareness and profound rapture while observing the Earth from such a distant vantage point. Gene Cernan described this as “one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had.” How is the experience both emotional and epiphanic? Is there a corresponding eureka experience that shifts understanding?
The relationship between the experience (in terms of the emotions and altered states involved) and the shifts in beliefs and values is complicated, and something that we are currently working to answer through further research. For example, I am working with creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman to determine how the experience of awe is related to creative epiphanies.
In terms of the astronauts’ accounts, some of them involved feelings of awe or even feelings of self-transcendence without any intellectual content. Some accounts, though, include insights or epiphanies that cover a wide range of topics, from their personal lives, to humanity as a whole, even to the nature of existence itself in a few cases. Importantly, many astronauts did not report any overwhelming insights or epiphanies at all. There is definitely a wide range of reactions here.
You focus much attention on the concept of awe, and note that “Awe is associated with a number of psychological benefits.” From a neuroscientific perspective, what is awe and what are those benefits? Is the rapture astronauts feel akin to religious ecstasy and the search for divine experiences?
The contemporary understanding of awe was outlined in an important article by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner. It has since been the subject of relatively rigorous psychological research, and it seemed pretty obvious that whatever else astronauts might be reporting, awe plays an important role.
As for how awe relates to other religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences – we are attempting to answer that question by gathering contemporary accounts of all of these experiences to determine their similarities and differences through our website, www.VarietiesCorpus.com. Please consider contributing a personal experience of awe or self-transcendence, religious or otherwise to our digital experience collection!
“From space I saw Earth—indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.”
- Muhammad Ahmad Faris
Music producer and artist Brian Eno challenges creators and viewers of art alike to, “Stop thinking about artworks as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” Can art play an integral role in helping to foster an Overview experience for those that can’t travel to space?
I love that quote by Eno (I’m also a big fan of his Oblique Strategies App). We have found that art and music are common triggers of awe for most of us.
In terms of current research, I am working with a few different psychologists (like Roy Baumeister, Andrea Gaggioli, Alice Chirico, and Bernhard Riecke) to use tools like virtual reality to induce awe in laboratory settings. Awe has been difficult to study because most intense triggers of awe involve getting far outside of the laboratory to mountains or monuments, whereas awe inductions in the lab are well controlled but pretty subtle (like viewing images on a computer screen). Virtual reality has the potential to elicit awe experiences that are both intense and in controlled settings.
Artists in the 1960s referred to themselves as “inner astronauts,” and sought an “intro-cosm” that matched this macro-viewpoint. What is your interest in “altered states”?
Yes, I’ve heard of this concept under the term “psychonauts.” Apparently, chemist Alexander Shulgin synthesized dozens of psychoactive chemicals that people would try and then report about how the substances altered their subjectivity. But I don’t know much about this or if these reports were very scientific.
I do know, though, that Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins is conducting highly controlled, ethical, and important scientific work on psilocybin in laboratory settings. This work can provide potentially groundbreaking psychological insights. I think reliable and safe ways of modulating subjectivity (methods to induce altered states) are important tools for scientific research. Those who engage in this kind of “inner” exploration could, I suppose, be considered psychonauts. You might have to ask Roland what he thinks about that!
In general, I think altered states of consciousness are an important subject for scientific research. Most of the work that has been done has been speculative or theoretical. We are only now at the point where we have the necessary tools to do good science on this topic.
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
- Dr. Edgar Mitchell
Astronaut Scott Kelly’s recent images of the Earth transform the places that we live and know into abstract patterns as uncanny as they are beautiful, do these images trigger the same effect?
I think Scott Kelly’s photographs are great for both the awe they inspire as well as for the role they play in keeping people engaged in science. Right now there is a crisis in the public understanding of science. I think scientists have an obligation to communicate with the public to raise our collective knowledge about what science tells us about life, the universe, and everything. Scott Kelly has done a great job of communicating science in a visually compelling way.
On a purely aesthetic level, I’m also a fan of Benjamin Grant’s book Overview, which features a number of photographs taken from satellites with an eye towards compositional elements like abstract patterns and striking arrangements of colors and textures.
You note that “The wholeness of the Earth makes it a symbol of almost all that is meaningful in human life... Seeing it from a distance, when one is disconnected physically yet connected emotionally, conjures thoughts of home, of the entirety of one’s world, and of mankind as a whole.” How does the experience of an “overwhelming sense of awe” generate a sense of connectedness?
Awe seems to produce feelings of connectedness in the same way that love produces subjective feelings of warmth. There is simply something about this emotion that tends to generate a greater sense of connectedness.
I think, though, that there is something more going on here. The image of Earth is itself a powerful symbol. It represents human achievement (that the picture is even possible) and human unity (we are all in it together) in a way that carries less cultural baggage than most other symbols. That is, a photo of Earth is both a compelling symbol of unity and a brute fact about our position in the universe.
Carl Sagan’s lines about viewing Earth from space come to mind, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”