The Overview Effect (OE) is a profound reaction as reported by astronauts when viewing Earth from space. As a result of having such an experience, astronauts describe a new-found sense of unity with Earth and its inhabitants, “an instant global consciousness”, leading many to experience improved wellbeing and humanitarian attitudes when returning home. This phenomenon was investigated by Yaden et al. (2016), who interviewed astronauts on their experiences, producing the quotations and data summarised in this article.
Although the experience of viewing Earth from a distance is itself episodic, it seems that the profound self-transcendental qualities that remain can produce lasting transformative effects, such as long-term changes in one’s attitudes and personal outlook. Through this change in perspective and greater identification with the planet as a whole, it is shown that OE can shape how individuals comprehend and approach novel ideas or affect the salience of known ones. The “explosion of awareness” characterising OE may be paralleled with other psychological phenomena, such as alterations in value systems and schema.
“You . . . say to yourself, ‘That’s humanity, love, feeling, and thought.’ You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.” (NASA Astronaut Gene Cernan, as cited in White, 1987, p. 37)
“Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.” (German Cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn, as cited in Hassard & Weisberg, 1999, p. 40)
“You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before.” (NASA Astronaut Sam Durrance, as cited in Redfern, 1996, p. 1)
So powerful was this experience, that many astronauts came together to establish the Overview Institute, designed to spread awareness of OE such as through research, articles, talks and documentaries, like ‘Overview‘.
It appears that viewing the Earth from a distance can raise one’s understanding of the planet from something held conceptually to something felt as a personal reality. The powerful and unusual states of awareness this can trigger prompt ideas for novel contexts in which to explore the psychological impacts of viewing awe-inspiring stimuli. Yaden et al.’s paper references Frank White, the astronaut and author of ‘The Overview Effect’, who suggests that OE can refer more broadly to the experience of viewing landscapes from above, such as from a mountain summit.
The authors draw comparisons between this phenomenon and that which is observed when an individual has a reduced awareness of their own physical self and separation from objects in their physical environment, which can result in a sense of connection with other people and with existence. They suggest that future research should investigate psychological constructs related to these subjective qualities, and whether altered states of consciousness like OE could result within other types of isolated, confined, extreme (ICE) environments.
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Hassard, J., & Weisberg, J. (1999). The emergence of global thinking among American and Russian youth as a contribution to public understanding. International journal of science education, 21(7), 731-743.
Redfern, M. (1996, April 21). Science: A new view of home. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/science-anew-view-of-home-1306095.html
White, F. (1987). The overview effect. Space exploration and human evolution.
Yaden, D. B., Iwry, J., Slack, K. J., Eichstaedt, J. C., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G. E., & Newberg, A. B. (2016). The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(1), 1.