Feature

The transcendental revelations of astronauts

Astronauts say "something" happens to you out there. Researchers are just beginning to understand what that something is.

Astronaut Kjell Lindgren spent close to five months on the International Space Station last year serving as a NASA flight engineer and mission specialist. He still remembers the first time he saw the Earth from space.

"I saw this really bright white light coming through the small windows of the Soyuz capsule," he told The Week. "I took a peek and saw the beautiful blue and whites of the Earth below, and the curvature of the horizon. Getting to experience the whole disc of the Earth from that point of view, truly for me, it was this breathtaking experience. I got goosebumps."

Humans have been going to space for five decades now, and during that time, numerous astronauts have returned from orbit with reports eerily similar to Lindgren's. Theirs are tales of profound inspiration, overwhelming emotion, a sense of oneness, even transcendence.

"No amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires," wrote space shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan. It's "one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had," said NASA astronaut Gene Cernan. "You realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you," said Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart. "All of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there."

In 1987, this phenomenon was given a name: the Overview Effect. Here's how it's defined by the Overview Institute:

[The Overview Effect] refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this "pale blue dot" becomes both obvious and imperative.

Or, as Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell perfectly and simply put it, "Something happens to you out there."

Indeed, for many astronauts, seeing the Earth from above does more than fill them with a fleeting sense of wonder. It changes them. Mitchell was so moved by his time in space that he launched the Noetic Institute to learn more about human consciousness. And Schweickart? He began practicing transcendental meditation upon his return. Others devote their lives to religion or find a renewed sense of faith.

But despite its life-altering potential, the Overview Effect has never really been studied empirically. David Yaden wants to change that. He's a research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, where he studies spiritual and self-transcendent experiences through the lenses of psychology and neuroscience. He's also the lead author on a new paper published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice that examines what, exactly, the Overview Effect does to the mind, and how its powers could be harnessed to promote health.

His conclusion? The Overview Effect elicits a sense of awe in its purest, most intense form. Emotion researchers have only recently begun studying the effects of awe, but they believe we experience awe when we are confronted with something vast, either physically big (the Grand Canyon, for example) or conceptually huge (like meeting your favorite celebrity). For a moment, this vastness confuses the mind, and forces the brain to accommodate by making room for what it's seeing.

"The Overview Effect seems to contain both of those aspects of awe," Yaden told The Week. "You're seeing an entire half of the planet all at once, which is vast beside the blackness of space. But on the conceptual side, Earth represents all we find meaningful as human beings. Many of the astronauts discuss this aspect as well, seeing the fragility and the beauty of the planet at once and having this epiphany or realization of how precious the planet is and how much we need to do more to protect it."

Back on Earth, awe has been linked to pro-social behavior, altruism, and inclusive thinking. But it's also been shown to have positive effects on everything from creativity to physical health. One study linked higher instances of wonder to lower levels of harmful, disease-linked inflammation markers, even more so than other positive emotions like love and joy. And indeed, awe can change people's lives. Many a come-to-Jesus epiphany — religious or not — have been preceded by staggeringly awesome experiences.

Yaden believes the Overview Effect, and the awe it elicits, should be taken into consideration as we consider sending astronauts deeper into space on longer, more isolating missions. He hopes to work with space agencies like NASA on mission planning. "It's not just about avoiding mental illness," he says. "It's about promoting mental health. So as simple as it may sound, one implication of our research is, if you're gonna send people to Mars, you should have windows."

Unfortunately, most of us will never have the privilege of going to space. How can we get a taste of the Overview Effect without leaving the confines of gravity? "We don't need to go to space to benefit from intense experiences of awe," Yaden says. "We can experience a little bit of the Overview Effect on mountain tops or by viewing a beautiful sunset. There are a lot of opportunities for these experiences that are all around us." So put down the smartphone. Go outside and take in the view. Glance up at the stars and ponder your very existence on our own pale blue dot, and let the awe wash over you.

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