The overview effect

Floating in darkness
Floating in darkness

Can space travel – at least orbiting the Earth – cause cognitive shifts? Really be transformative – have lasting impact? [1]

Generally, studies note variability in the experience. And not all astronauts experience the overview effect.

(Wiki) Author [“space philosopher”] Frank White, who in the 1980s coined the term overview effect after interviewing many astronauts, …

Yaden et al. observed that cultural differences, including differences in religious and social identity, affect the ways in which the effect is experienced and interpreted. Expressions range from the religious, to the “vaguely spiritual”, to the naturalistic, to calls to social duty.

Wiki even notes that there’s some research on whether immersive virtual reality simulations might “induce the overview effect in earthbound participants.”

This Big Think article is a personal perspective by astronaut Ron Garan.

• Big Think > “‘I went to space and discovered an enormous lie’” – What astronaut Ron Garan saw in space changed his life forever – here’s what it taught him.

(article quote) Description:

Former NASA astronaut, serial entrepreneur, humanitarian, and highly decorated combat fighter Ron Garan racked up 178 days in space and more than 71 million miles in 2,842 orbits between tours …

A curious phenomenon often occurs when astronauts travel to space and look out on our planet for the first time: They see how interconnected and fragile life on Earth is, and they feel a sudden responsibility to protect it.

Astronaut Ron Garan experienced this so-called “overview effect” when he first saw Earth from space. When he looked out on the planet, he saw an iridescent biosphere teeming with life, all protected by a remarkably thin atmosphere.

What he did not see was the thing that society often gives top priority: the economy. For Garan, seeing Earth from space revealed that problems like global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity loss are not disconnected. They are the symptoms of an underlying flaw in how we perceive ourselves as humans: We fail to realize that we are a planetary species.

(article quote) Transcript:

And the problem is that we don’t see ourselves as planetary [“floating in darkness”].

In that moment, I was hit with the sobering realization that that paper-thin layer keeps every living thing on our planet alive. I saw an iridescent biosphere teeming with life. I didn’t see the economy. But since our human-made systems treat everything, including the very life-support systems of our planet, as the wholly owned subsidiary of the global economy, it’s obvious from the vantage point of space that we’re living a lie. We need to move from thinking economy, society, planet to planet, society, economy. That’s when we’re going to continue our evolutionary process.

One of the the things that I realized during my time in space is that we’re not from Earth, we’re of Earth.


[1] In terms of awe, some religious traditions include instilling “a state of awe with self-transcendent qualities.” How’s that worked out?

Compare theologian Rudolf Otto‘s concept of the numinous. And the feeling of awe.

Or Karl Barth‘s commentary The Epistle to the Romans regarding being “shaken out of their dreaming” – coming to oneself in “fear and awe and trembling” – “clarity of sight.”

(quote) German-American theologian Paul Tillich acknowledged Otto’s influence on him, …

Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, applied the concept of the numinous to psychology and psychotherapy, …

5 comments on “The overview effect

  1. Wow!

    The many flavors of awe [1], both brief and enduring. Down-to-earth awe – sources of quotidian awe: people (affirmative acts), inspiring stories, the arts, walks (“extend the self into the environment”).

    • The Atlantic > “The Quiet Profundity of Everyday Awe” by Dacher Keltner (January 3, 2023) [excerpted from his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life] – We need that everyday awe, even when it’s discovered in the humblest places.

    (quote) What gives you a sense of awe? That word, awe – the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world – is often associated with the extraordinary. … Awe blows us away: It reminds us that there are forces bigger than ourselves, and it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered.

    We found that the awe-walkers felt more awe with each passing week. You might have thought that their capacity for awe would start to decrease … But the more we practice awe, it seems, the richer it gets. … Over the course of our study, awe-walkers reported feeling less daily distress and more prosocial emotions such as compassion and amusement.

    [Sometimes] … engaging with what’s overwhelming can put things in perspective.

    [Dacher Keltner is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.]


    [1] After posting this comment, which starts with the phrase “the many flavors of awe,” the next day (January 4th) I ran across this article from 2021.

    • Psychology Today > “The 5 Flavors of Awe – and How to Taste Them” by Arash Emamzadeh (June 30, 2021) – New research explores the benefits of awe and ways to promote awe.

    Table of contents

    What is awe?
    Awe and power
    Flavors of awe
    Mental health benefits of awe
    Awe facilitators
    Barriers to awe and how to overcome them
    Takeaway: Promoting awe

    [Arash Emamzadeh attended the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he studied genetics and psychology. He has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology in U.S.]

  2. Earthrise

    “Was Apollo 8‘s (December 21–27, 1968) iconic view of the Earth rising above the moon more impactful than the Apollo 11 moon landing?” – Robert Poole, author of “Earthrise: a Short History of the Whole Earth” (2nd edition, 2023)

    • > “Inside ‘Earthrise’: A historian’s take on the origins of the Apollo 8 ‘image of the century” by Robert Poole (November 23, 2023) – The astronauts understood its importance, despite competing mission priorities.

    Detailed research I’ve conducted in NASA’s archives has revealed more clearly how much planning lay behind these dramatic moments [Earthrise and Genesis broadcast].

    … Apollo program’s director of photography, Dick Underwood, … explained: “Hours were spent with the lunar crews, including the Apollo 8 crew, in briefing on exactly how to set up the camera, which film to use … these briefings were most comprehensive.”

    [On the fourth orbit] Anders was at a side window taking photos of craters using a camera with black and white film when he saw the Earth rise from behind the moon. “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up,” Anders exclaimed.

    Anders quickly took a sharp shot of the Earth emerging above the lunar horizon. Then he and Lovell argued briefly over who should have the color film camera, while Borman tried to calm them down.

    It was Anders who took the blurry, hastily framed, overexposed color shot of Earthrise, later dubbed the image of the century. But in the other camera was a much better shot, long ignored because it was in black and white.

    … no one in the agency knew in advance what Borman would say. … … [he] had thought about the assignment carefully, asking a publicist friend to help out with the text.

    With only two minutes left before radio contact was lost as the spacecraft passed behind the moon, Anders said: “The crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you.”

  3. Blue Marble Trilogy

    So, the effect of immersive narratives? A new term: “presence-based storytelling” – from the unique vantage point of space.

    • > “Experience the Overview Effect with the Felix & Paul VR trilogy ‘Space Explorers: Blue Marble’” by Jeff Sry (September 10, 2023) – Take a meditative trip around Earth in this award-winning VR space series with two new episodes

    • YouTube > Felix & Paul Studios (Sep 4, 2023) – The Space Explorer: Blue Marble trilogy presents three stunning 360° perspectives of Earth, captured from the International Space Station (ISS).

    Advancing outer space VR experiences for armchair astronauts equipped with an Oculus Quest or Oculus Quest 2 headset, Felix & Paul Studios just announced the release of the VR trilogy, “Space Explorers: Blue Marble,” with the addition of “Space Explorers: Blue Marble – Orbit 2” and “Space Explorers: Blue Marble – Orbit 3.”

    This expands upon the immersive narrative arc first revealed earlier this year with “Space Explorers: Blue Marble – Orbit 1.” Now the whole trilogy is available at Metaquest for free, delivering a trio of jaw-dropping 360-degree perspectives of our home planet filmed from the lofty orbital heights of the International Space Station (ISS).

    To watch all three orbits of “Space Explorers: Blue Marble” visit the MetaQuest site.

  4. Cosmic what?

    So, is there a relationship between the cosmos and consciousness? – a “mirroring” of cosmic dynamics? A Shakespearean-like perspective on drama in the heavens and on the human stage.

    Well, this article explores that question: Carl Sagan’s star stuff … a lot of Nietzsche … the anthropic principle [hmm] … values frameworks … a connection with something greater than ourselves.

    “On an existential level, the search for meaning is largely the quest for a coherent structure.”

    • Psychology Today > “The Psychology of the Cosmos” by psychologist Derek Lusk, Ph.D.[1], reviewed by Michelle Quirk (February 19, 2024) – Our psychology is in a universe predisposed to the emergence of conscious life, capable of marveling at its own existence


    There are four dynamics in people and the universe: harmony, power, chaos, and order.

    • Harmony is about balance [equilibrium (yin-yang) … “fine-tuning” of the universe (physics) … collective unity, cohesiveness, and cooperation].
    • Power is about progress [capacity to influence and transform … a sense of the sublime … striving (efficacy) … collective vision].
    • Chaos concerns change [entropy, novelty, creativity].
    • Order is rules and structure [natural regular patterns, structure, predictability, personal & collective routines & goals].

    In these universal dynamics, we find our deepest held values and meaning and purpose in life.


    [1] Derek Lusk teaches organizational psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and currently is working on a book about the dark side of leadership.

  5. Sky wow

    Solar eclipses, auroras … as moments of awe … the “pro-social benefits” of shared “wow?” And what can we learn from neuroscience? And storytelling – sharing stories of awe and wonder.

    • Psychology Today > “The Power of Sharing Moments of Awe” by Val Walker MS (rehabilitation consultant and speaker), reviewed by Davia Sills (May 17, 2024) – How do shared experiences of awe and wonder affect us?

    KEY POINTS (quoted)

    Experiences of awe shift one’s focus outward instead of inward to think beyond self-referencing thoughts.

    States of awe can unlock people’s perception of themselves and others from their biased narratives.

    Awe allows people to see beyond their expectations and “predictive coding” to the reality in front of them.

    In a BBC article by David Robson, University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross describes awe as “the wonder we feel when we encounter something powerful that we can’t easily explain.” … “The capacity to step outside of ourselves is a really valuable skill.”

    Awe unlocks our perception of ourselves and others from our biased narratives, at least for a moment. … these powerful, inexplicable experiences that snap us out of our habitual mindsets and expectations. … we never forget how we felt at that moment – so connected, unified, part of something greater than ourselves.

    References: Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Change Your Life by psychologist Dacher Keltner

Comments are closed.