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At one with the cosmos: Researchers delve into the Overview Effect

The profound sense of connectedness and awe experienced by astronauts upon seeing Earth from space is the subject of a new study.

NASA

When astronauts gaze back at the beautiful blue planet we humans call home, they report strange feelings. Feelings of euphoria, love, and a deep sense of connectivity, a shift in worldview not just physically but also emotionally.

This phenomenon is called the Overview Effect, named by writer Frank White in his 1987 book of the same name, and has been documented since the 1970s. Edgar Mitchell wrote of visiting the moon in 1971, "Somehow I felt tuned in to something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big."

Mitchell is now part of The Overview Institute, a collection of space experts that hopes to educate the world about the effect. Very little actual research has been conducted into the phenomenon, but this is where a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Centre come into the picture.

Led by research fellows David Yaden and Johannes Eichstaedt, the team is studying the Overview Effect in the hopes of being able to replicate it here on Earth. For that, the next stage of research will involve using virtual reality to give people an experience of gazing at our planet from afar in the hopes of achieving a similar effect. Their paper appeared in the March issue of Psychology of Consciousness.

"In the end, what we care about is how to induce these experiences," Eichstaedt said. "They help people in some ways be more adaptive, feel more connected, reframe troubles."

The team has studied quotes and accounts from astronauts all around the world, and suggested existing psychological constructs that may contribute to understanding the Overview Effect. They also determined that the feelings expressed by the astronauts were replicable.

"Behavior is extremely hard to change, so to stumble across something that has such a profound and reproducible effect that should make psychologists sit up straight and say, 'What's going on here? How can we have more of this?'" Eichstaedt said.

They also believe that the Overview Effect could be a force for good on longer space missions, where astronauts can experience flagging morale due to a high-pressure job, confinement and isolation from home.