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Perspectives on the Overview Effect

The experience has been described as “interconnected euphoria,” “cosmic connection,” “spectacular,” and “life changing.”

While this might sound like how one feels practicing transcendental meditation or after returning from a sustainability-themed conference (yeah, you know the feeling), what’s being described here is something that only a handful of lucky souls – astronauts mostly – have had the rare opportunity to experience. So what is it exactly?

The phenomenon has been described by nearly all astronauts, as documented by the writer Frank White who first coined the term “overview effect” in his 1987 book by the same name. Even after the space travelers return to earth, they are forever changed. And many go on to become champions and advocates for environmental and humanitarian causes.

In the words of Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who passed away earlier this month on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his 1971 moonwalk, “Something happens to you out there…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.”

Here are other astronaut perspectives of the Overview Effects:

When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.” – Ron Garan, ISS astronaut

When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change… it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.” – Russell “Rusty” Schweikart, Apollo astronaut

The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way… by giving everyone, eventually, that new perspective from out in space.” – Roger B. Chaffee, Apollo astronaut

In a 2013 video called “Overview,” David Beaver, co-founder of the Overview Institute, recalls the sentiments of one of the astronauts on the Apollo mission. “When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon,” he said. “We weren’t thinking about looking back at the Earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.”

The Overview Effect is such a profound and magnanimous experience that some scientists believe there must be a physiological explanation for what happens to the body while in space. “The fact that this perspective happens while the person is in zero gravity is an integral part of the experience,” says Frank White.  And in fact, there are studies to suggest flying above the earth can have psychological effects. A 1957 study of jet aviators flying above 13,000 feet found that approximately 1 in 3 have so-called “break-off experiences” where they feel a sense of awe, exhilaration, and detachment from the problems of the world.

Where Can I Get My Ticket to Enlightenment?

For those of us who can’t afford the trip to outer space, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that we can actually simulate the Overview Effect with our feet firmly planted on the ground. How exactly? University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has spent his career studying the brains of people who have religious or spiritual experiences on earth. His work suggests meditation and mindfulness practices can produce a similar effect of no space and no time.

But even with the help of reflective practices and virtually reality headsets are people really capable of gaining a global perspective of life on earth, transcending our differences, and discovering our shared humanity?

The cynic in me says no flippin’ way! Have you been following the US presidential election? Watched the nightly news or reality TV? Driven in Philadelphia rush hour traffic?

Even still, I am hopeful that one day we tragically flawed, incredibly beautiful humans will have a similar shift and realize that, for better or worse, we’re all in it together on this stunning blue dot hurling through the universe. We will change the rules of the game to bring out the best, rather than the worst, in human systems. Instead of climbing overtop one another like crabs in a bucket we will (finally!) begin to cooperate towards mutual benefit – something we’ve had a pretty abysmal track record with up till now.

Despite of our faults and pitfalls, we humans can do some pretty incredible things when we put our minds to it. Think 1969 moon landing. Big stuff. On the horizon I can see the possibility of something even bigger for us, only this time the journey won’t take us to outer space, but to inner space. Fasten your seatbelts folks, it’ll be a worthwhile ride!