Many astronauts who’ve had the chance to view Earth from outer space say they felt overwhelmed with intense emotions of awe and wonder, similar to a deeply spiritual or transformative experience. This phenomenon, known as the “overview effect,” is the focus of a new study led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.
The researchers set out to achieve three main objectives: to obtain a better understanding of this life-changing experience, to understand how to induce a similar sensation for non-astronauts, and to look for implications for space flight as we head toward years-long missions to places like Mars.
They published their findings in the journal Psychology of Consciousness.
To understand the overview effect, the psychologists analyzed excerpts from an international group of astronauts who documented viewing Earth from space. Strong themes — such as unity, vastness, connectedness, perception — emerged from their experiences.
“We watch sunsets whenever we travel to beautiful places to get a little taste of this kind of experience. These astronauts are having something more extreme,” said lead author David Yaden. “By studying the more-extreme version of a general phenomenon, you can often learn more about it.”
Yaden specializes in topics related to self-transcendence and spiritual experiences. Most often, he said, they come entangled in a religious context, but not for astronauts.
“Space is so fascinating because it’s a highly scientific, highly secular environment, so it doesn’t have these connotations,” he said. “We think of people who do a lot of meditation or climb mountains, people who are awe junkies, having these experiences. We don’t [often] think of these very strict scientists reporting these blissful moments.”
Not only that, but the experiences can be duplicated. “Behavior is extremely hard to change, so to stumble across something that has such a profound and reproducible effect,” said researcher Johannes Eichstaedt, “that should make psychologists sit up straight and say, ‘What’s going on here? How can we have more of this?'”
One idea they have for a follow-up experiment would use virtual reality to give participants the chance to Earth-gaze. This could result in an experience similar to the overview effect.
“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 researchers also believe that psychology should be integrated into extended space missions, and they hope to create concrete recommendations for the astronauts’ long-term well being. In their estimation, this overview effect — a positive phenomenon already occurring in space flight — can help.
In the near future, private sector groups such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic, may be an interim step to get there, note the researchers. But ideally, they’re aiming to collaborate with astronauts already back from space and those on their way up.
“We’re outlining a phenomenon that’s fascinating,” Yaden said. “This is our first step, and we hope that we can take this and go further.”