“Humanity must rise above the earth, to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. For only then will we understand the world in which we live.”— Socrates
Since the 1960s, astronauts from diverse cultures and backgrounds have described their experience in space as something extraordinary. They’ve told us that upon seeing our Earth from the vastness of space . . . they gained a global vision of “planetary unity and purpose for humanity as a whole.”
Such unified, global vision could be instrumental in personal and planetary healing.
This experience is known as the “overview effect,” a term first coined by space philosopher and writer Frank White, who wrote a book by the same name. Today, a select group of astronauts, scientists, and cultural thought leaders oversee the Overview Institute, dedicated to educating the public about the overview effect and making the experience available to more people.
The Overview Institute describes the power of the effect this way:
“It 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. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!”
Some scientists theorize that the overview effect is a mental state similar to that achieved by meditating Buddhist monks — except that Buddhist monks practice for years to achieve enlightenment, whereas astronauts experience it all at once, effortlessly, upon viewing Earth from afar.
A Profoundly Life-Changing Experience
One thing is very clear: the 500 or so astronauts and the few civilians fortunate enough to have gazed upon Earth from a distance are profoundly changed by what they see.
“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing,” explained astronaut Russell “Rusty” Schweickart after a 1969 spacewalk outside his Apollo 9 Lunar Module. Schweickart was carrying out tests for the forthcoming moon landings, and was overcome by what he experienced in space. “That makes a change,” he said. “It comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.”
Two years after Schweickart’s experience, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell shared his own experience of the overview effect as a “profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness.” Mitchell said he felt intensely aware that each and every atom in the Universe is connected in some way. Upon seeing Earth from space, Mitchell gained what he explained as an “understanding that all the humans, animals, and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole.” He described an interconnected euphoria.
Mitchell also said that the overview effect changed his life because it revealed a universe that had remained hidden until then.
Many other astronauts since the 1970s have described similar experiences of the overview effect. Andy Newberg, M.D., a neuroscientist/physician with experience in space medicine, believes that being in space may actually bring on certain physiological changes in an astronaut’s brain function. What’s more, Newberg himself has detected a distinct psychological change in the men and women that have come back from space.
According to Newberg, “You can often tell when you’re with someone who has flown in space, it’s palpable.”
Andrew Newberg and the Science of the Overview Effect
Dr. Newberg is as interested in the science of the overview effect as he is in the healing potential it brings to those who experience it. Newberg is an associate professor in the department of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, a staff physician in nuclear medicine, and one of the founding members of the Overview Institute.
His extensive research has focused significantly on mystical and religious experiences as well as the general mind/body relationship. Newberg directs the University of Pennsylvania Center for Spirituality and the Mind and is the author of the book Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs and co-author of the bestseller Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief and The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Belief.
Deeply religious individuals as well as transcendental meditators are able to experience states similar to the overview effect, and thus have been a focus of interest for neuroscientists. In his own research, Newberg has scanned many brains to try to understand how humans reach this euphoric state on Earth. In some cases, meditation leads people to view the whole cosmos as an interconnected quantum web where consciousness is not separate, but a part of the Universe.
Ultimately, Newberg hopes to monitor the brain of space tourists in order to better grasp the brain function of a human in zero gravity.
One of the Most Important Experiences We Can Bring to People
According to Dr. Newberg, the overview effect may be one of the most important experiences we can try to bring to people. Newberg explains his views this way:
“This experience needs to be made available for all people. It is also crucial to bring this experience to leaders around the world, regardless of whether they are political, corporate or academic leaders. All of us can benefit from this experience … [that] is deeply rooted in our biology.
“As a neuroscientist studying a broad variety of human experiences, it appears that the brain itself is capable of taking in the overview experience and converting such an overwhelming concept into our behaviors and thoughts. Individuals who have had the overview experience feel a breaking down of boundaries and a sense of the interconnectedness and preciousness of the Earth and all those who live on it.
“It is a testament to how our brain is wired to enable us to transcend our often petty goals and seek to become something greater than we already are. By encouraging others to have the overview experience, we have the opportunity to move humanity closer to world peace by deepening our understanding of those around us and committing ourselves to improving the lives of all human beings.”
Making the Effect More Available
Members of the Overview Institute say that two recent advances are about to dramatically change limitations that have until now allowed only about 500 fortunate space travelers to experience the overview effect.
The first advance is the commercial space industry. In the near future, commercial flights could begin taking tens of thousands of people into the near-space environment. According to the Overview Institute, “that’s far enough to grasp some aspects of the overview effect.” Institute members say this is only the beginning of the historic human evolution into space, “and the resulting transformations of human culture and consciousness as we become a space-faring culture.”
Still, only the wealthiest individuals will be able to pay $20,000 or more for a ticket for a suborbital flight. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all strive to experience this extraordinary shift in consciousness thanks to the second advance touted by the Overview Institute, which includes high definition digital-media including 3-dimensional simulation media and virtual reality.
“We don’t literally need to lift millions of people into orbit to get this effect,” said Frank White. Instead, Earthbound audiences could experience an “approximation” of the space environment through new technologies combined with art, media, entertainment, and education.
All this could help to bring the overview effect — with its tremendous personal and planetary healing potential — to many millions around the globe.