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, …

1 comment 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.]

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