The Awe Effect ◆ What Astronauts Can Teach Us About Perspective

by Leora

You probably aren’t packing your bags for space anytime soon (unless you’re one of the brave souls who signed up to move to Mars), but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a few cues from astronauts whose euphoric experiences in zero-gravity transformed their lives on earth.

It’s called the “Overview Effect”. And it’s the sense of awe and fragility astronauts or cosmonauts report experiencing during spaceflight as they view the earth from orbit or lunar surfaces.

Imagine seeing earth as a tiny orb, only the deep blues of its oceans, the muted greens of continents, and the whites of shifting clouds lit by the blazing sun. Or the land masses at night washed in billions of blinking lights from cities, knowing that where the electricity appears more dense, millions of people are represented. Imagine seeing your home planet perfectly placed in the ink black universe, swimming in stars. The smallness you’d feel in the vastness.

Or imagine walking on the surface of the moon, like Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Several hours spent on the lunar surface caused him to be overwhelmed by the euphoric sense of the interconnectedness of humanity and the Universe, almost an enlightenment.

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. – Edgar Mitchell

He’s not alone in these transformational experiences. From writer Olivia Goldhill, “Space travel turned Charlie Duke, a lunar module pilot for Apollo 16, into a Christian after seeing earth from space; Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 became a preacher; Edgar Mitchell formed the Noetic Institute to research altered states of consciousness; and Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart began transcendental meditation and dedicated himself to voluntary work.”

Is It a Zero Gravity Effect?

Some scientists argue that these euphoric, life-altering experiences are unique to space travel alone (more reason to sign up for that Mars One Mission?), due to the physiological changes that happen to a person in zero-gravity. Frank White, author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, when asked in an interview if the lack of gravity was causative or potentiated the experience says, “Yes, it is definitely related to zero-gravity. While we have focused our attention primarily on the view of the Earth from space and in space, the fact that this perspective happens while the person is in zero-gravity is an integral part of the experience. Most of the astronauts I interviewed for my book commented on the lack of gravity as being central to the uniqueness of their experience.”

Can the Overview Effect be Replicated on Earth?

The zero gravity part of the equation would obviously be hard to achieve. But, can we still cultivate lifestyles, foster belief systems, build in practices or hunt for earth-bound experiences that would allow for similarly expansive personal transformations?

Could we experience the “Overview Effect” through the breathtaking surveillance of the Grand Canyon? Watching the sunrise span across the ocean horizon? Celebrating a backyard full of children at play?

What about through faith in God? Or prayer?

Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist with a background in space medicine, says that there is a “palpable difference” in someone who has experienced space first hand, but that differences are also noted in those who pray or meditate. He’s used SPECT technology (for brain imaging) that documents the difference that meditation can have on the area of the brain responsible for giving us a sense of our orientation in space and time.

It’s clear that our thoughts matter, and that seeing things that we consider beautiful or awe-inspiring have the potential to change us, our courses in life and even alter us phsyiologically.

So, you don’t need to cut ties and buy a one way ticket to Mars.

Just make time for the sunrise and some stargazing.

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