The Overview Effect

After six weeks in orbit, circling the earth in a claustrophobic space station, the three-person crew of Skylab 4 decided to go on a strike. For 24 hours, the astronauts refused to work, and even turned off their communications radio linking them to Earth. While NASA was confused by the space revolt—mission control was concerned the astronauts were depressed—the men up in space insisted they just wanted more time to admire their view of the earth. As the NASA flight director later put it, the astronauts were asserting “their needs to reflect, to observe, to find their place amid these baffling, fascinating, unprecedented experiences.”

The Skylab 4 crew was experiencing a phenomenon known as the overview effect, which refers to the intense emotional reaction that can be triggered by the sight of the earth from beyond its atmosphere. Sam Durrance, who flew on two shuttle missions, described the feeling like this: “You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before.”

The Caribbean Sea, as seen from ISS Expedition 40

The Caribbean Sea, as seen from ISS Expedition 40

What’s most remarkable about the overview effect is that the effect lasts: the experience of awe often leaves a permanent mark on the lives of astronauts. A new paper by a team of scientists (the lead author is David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania) investigates the overview effect in detail, with a particular focus on how this vision of earth can “settle into long-term changes in personal outlook and attitude involving the individual’s relationship to Earth and its inhabitants.” For many astronauts, this is the view they never get over.

How does this happen? How does a short-lived perception alter one’s identity? There is no easy answer. In this paper, the scientists focus on how the sight of the distant earth is so contrary to our usual perspective that it forces our “self-schema” to accommodate an entirely new point of view. We might conceptually understand that the earth is a lonely speck floating in space, a dot of blue amid so much black. But it’s an entirely different thing to bear witness to this reality, to see our fragile planet from hundreds of miles away. The end result is that the self itself is changed; this new perspective of earth alters one’s perspective on life, with the typical astronaut reporting “a greater affiliation with humanity as a whole.” Here’s Ed Gibson, the science pilot on Skylab 4: “You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe. Your life and concerns are important to you, of course. But you can see that a lot of the things you worry about do not make much difference in an overall sense.”

There are two interesting takeaways. The first one, emphasized in the paper, is that the overview effect might serve as a crucial coping mechanism for the challenges of space travel. Astronauts live a grueling existence: they are stressed, isolated and exhausted. They live in cramped quarters, eat terrible food and never stop working. If we are going to get people to Mars, then we need to give astronauts tools to endure their time on a spaceship. As the crew of Skylab 4 understood, one of the best ways to withstand space travel is to appreciate its strange beauty.

The second takeaway has to do with the power of awe and wonder. When you read old treatises on human nature, these lofty emotions are often celebrated. Aristotle argued that all inquiry began with the feeling of awe, that “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” Rene Descartes, meanwhile, referred to wonder as the first of the passions, “a sudden surprise of the soul that brings it to focus on things that strike it as unusual and extraordinary.” In short, these thinkers saw the experience of awe as a fundamental human state, a feeling so strong it could shape our lives.

But now? We have little time for awe in the 21st century; wonder is for the young and unsophisticated. To the extent we consider these feelings it’s for a few brief moments on a hike in a National Park, or to marvel at a child’s face when they first enter Disneyland. (And then we get out our phones and take a picture.) Instead of cultivating awe, we treat it as just another fleeting feeling; wonder is for those who don’t know any better.

The overview effect, however, is a reminder that these emotions can have a lasting impact. Like the Skylab 4 astronauts, we can push back against our hectic schedules, insisting that we find some time to stare out the window.  

Who knows? The view just might change your life.

Yaden, David B., et al. "The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight." Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 3.1 (2016): 1.