In the late 1970s, Frank White, a writer and sort of space philosopher, was flying from Boston to the West Coast. He spent a lot of time looking out the window, and as the plane flew over Washington D.C., he started contemplating what was happening down there.

“I was looking at the buildings and realizing that the people in those buildings were making laws for me. And yet it didn’t seem relevant to me that they would be,” White said. “It seemed that I had this overview, I had this bigger picture, and yet they’re making laws from the surface.”

He was thinking about human settlement in space a lot back then and for him, this idea of the overview was revelatory. He had a birds-eye view of the earth on his flight, but space settlers would have an overview of the entire planet. And that, he thought, would lead to more enlightened people, who worked together to protect their planet. He called it the overview effect. 

“It’s a physical reality that leads to a philosophical reality,” he explained.     

With no space settlers to ask about it, he started calling up astronauts to see if they’d underwent something similar.

Window gazing 

It takes just eight and a half minutes to reach orbit. The astronauts lurch off the planet with more than five million pounds of thrust, pressed into their seats by 3Gs of force, before suddenly going weightless. Astronauts describe an intense trip, topped off by a surreal gravity-free environment when they arrive.   

“But the most memorable part of that first day in space was when I got to look out the window for the very first time,” said Ron Garan, who left NASA is 2013, and is now working with a commercial spaceflight company. “When all my tasks were over I got to unstrap, float over to a window, and really take it in. It just took my breath away.”    

Imagine looking at your home - your neighborhood, your city - from a new vantage point. Many people have experienced that on an airplane, seven miles in the air. Zooming out like that can add new significance to familiar ground. Now zoom out some more, 250 miles up, to where the international space station orbits. Peering out the window there presents more than just a pretty view.   

“It was this kind of magnetic, draws you in, you can’t float by a window without looking through it because you know how beautiful it’s going to be, you know you’re going to be surprised by something,” said Nicole Stott, who retired from NASA in 2015 and is now an artist.

Scott Parazynski, a practicing physician who retired from NASA in 2009, remembered seeing “one burst of lightning ignite and then at the tips of each of these fingers of lightning, subsequent bursts of lightning would erupt. And it was like a fireworks show going on right beneath the space shuttle and space station. One of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in my life.”  

“I think the first thing that hit me is how thin the atmosphere is,” Garan said. “You’re really hit with the sobering realization that that paper thin layer is keeping every living things on the planet alive. And it really makes you understand how fragile the planet is.”

The astronauts Frank White spoke to saw their planet with fresh eyes. They’d all flown on planes, and Scott Parazynski had even climbed Mount Everest, but this experience stood out.  Being totally separated from the planet, seeing it as a sphere, in space, somehow revealed new truths. They saw fragility, interconnectedness, beauty, and the absence of political borders, just as White had predicted. Out in the vastness of space, instead of feeling insignificant or overcome by the environmental destruction they saw, they felt empowered.

“I don’t remember looking out the window and thinking bad things. And that’s kind of a weird thing to say but I don’t remember looking out the window and being overwhelmed by the negative kinds of things that are going on down there,” Stott said. “I remember looking like, wow, this is a view that inspires you to do good things and to cooperate.”

Back on Earth, many astronauts become environmentalists, activists, do-gooders. Garan, for example, runs various humanitarian initiatives in the developing world. Parazynsky is developing telemedicine in needy countries. The way they tell it, they felt compelled to act, not just think, as global citizens, working to solve global problems. And they credited their time in space as a motivating factor.

Overview and awe

NASA has studied the negative physiological and psychological effects of space travel, but the overview effect, considered a positive effect, doesn’t come up as much in post-flight debriefs, according to astronauts The Pulse spoke with.

But there is renewed interest in studying it in the science community. David Yaden, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies self-transcendence (like deep meditation, or mystical experiences), recently published a paper on it. “The Overview effect is a set of psychological reactions that seems to occur when someone looks over a familiar landscape from afar,” he said.      

While White, who coined the term, approached the idea philosophically, Yaden wanted to take White’s ideas into the realm of science, attaching this kind of out-there experience to known psychological research.

“A lot of the astronauts seem to be describing something that sounded a lot like awe,” he said of the accounts he studied.

Awe is an emotion, like happiness, or sadness. And like other emotions, it’s got physical traits. “There’s a kind of loosening of the facial muscles, the mouth sometimes slackens, the eyes widen, there’s a very distinct set of emotional or facial features that change with the emotion of awe,” Yaden said.

Different things can inspire awe – whether threat, beauty, virtue – but the biggest trigger is vastness. “There’s perceptual vastness, which is seeing the Grand Canyon, seeing something very vast. And then there’s conceptual vastness, which is a big thought, a big idea, like contemplating infinity,” said Yaden.

The astronauts described both aspects of awe. They spoke about the immeasurable blackness of space and the beauty of the planet. And they spoke about the meaning of what they saw looking at their planet, separated from it so completely but orbiting it 16 times per day.

“For many, it represents the object that protects and nurtures them from the inhospitable void out there,” said Annahita Nezami, a counseling psychologist who has also studied the overview effect. “Earth symbolizes a sanctuary, the global home. It’s also seen as alive, as a source of vitality and life. And so the experience transformed Earth into an object that is valued, admired and respected. And this cultivated a deeper sense of emotional attachment and belonging to our planet.”

Yaden pulls a lot from the work of Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, two researchers who have written about awe. For them, there’s one more factor that an experience must have in order to qualify as awe: a “need for accommodation.” In other words, it has to change you.

“A lot of them talk about lifelong changes, not just talking about an intense almost altered state from this perception, but seeing the world in a different way, as more interconnected, as seeing boundaries disappear, mentally, and seeing the earth as one entity. Not just in an abstract kind of way, but feeling it in a more visceral gut level,” Yaden said. “Post-flight, they all, to one degree or another, sort of talked about how the experience strengthened their inclination to act on, specifically environmental issues,” Nezami said.

Awe, write Keltner and Haidt, can “transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values. Given the stability of personality and values, awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”

So while the overview effect may be reserved for astronauts, for now, all those feelings associated with it may not be. “I think it’s a more extreme example of something that’s really common and that we seek out intuitively,” Yaden said.

Looking for awe

Yaden wants to use virtual reality to learn more about awe and the overview effect. In his office, he lets me be a guinea pig for his future tests. He puts virtual reality goggles and headphones on me, and when they turn on the program, I’m floating in a spaceship, in orbit.

The door to the space capsule opens up with a little puff, and I float out into space on a tether. In the goggles is the earth, with displays of the aurora borealis at both poles, satellites in the distance. The moon, massive and dark, passes in front of me. I see some meteors, the big blackness of space, and then everything starts to fade, and it’s over.

When I take off the gear, I feel lighter, pleasant, as if after a particularly enjoyable conversation, or stroll, but I wouldn’t call it awe. Yaden is hoping it works better on other subjects. That would allow his team to study awe more deeply, to understand how the overview effect differs from other types of awe, and how it relates to other self-transcendent experiences.

Others hope virtual reality can one day be used to elicit the overview effect in those who want to experience it, or as a form of therapy. White says the experience should be a human right. The astronauts suggest the world would be a better place if political leaders were sent to space, to hash out international disputes.

Sometimes, it takes a trip to outer space to reckon with life on Earth.