At dusk a few evenings ago, I pondered the sky after a cloudless sunset. Light blue tinged with faint orange were fading to darkness in the west. The black of night was asserting its dominance in the east while creeping towards the zenith. Some of the brighter stars and galaxies were becoming visible.
Astronauts who have been to Outer Space came immediately to mind. Many of whom reporting to having experienced the Overview Effect. Those who have orbited our planet or have journeyed to the Moon said they felt overwhelming feelings of identification with the Earth and humanity as a whole. Many of the space travelers claimed to enjoy temporary and sometimes long-term mental and emotional benefits after experiencing the Overview Effect.
We must take into account the fact that spending extended spans of time in Outer Space is an emotionally grueling experience. Among the many requirements and examinaitions that candidate astronauts recieve, are mental and emotional assessments and tests. Due to the nature of space flight, there are many real and potential dangers. Among those hazards are anxiety, disorientation, and existential panic. In a few instances, Mission Control has had to shorten or abort flights due to severe emotional distress being experienced by astronauts.
Those astronauts who easily pass the mental and emotional tests and actually travel into Space, tend to feel curiosity, focus, and joy while performing their duties. Only relatively recently has NASA and experts of space biology and medicine begun to study the Overview Effect.
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty.”–Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell
This mental condition was first identified by researcher Frank White while debriefing several astronauts after the completion of their missions. White reported that many of the individuals felt profoundly transformed. They described feelings of awe, wonder, unity with brotherhood and the Universe. Their experiences transcended everything they had ever previously felt. The astronauts reported that merely going into Outer Space did not trigger the deep emotions of the Overview Effect; the profundity swept over their mental states only while observing and contemplating the Earth from a distance. It is believed by some that the shock of seeing our planetary home from this perspective comes about because through the aeons, our minds evolved on Earth, not in Outer Space. Although the astronauts could intellectually grasp what they were going through, they could barely “wrap the cognitive mind” around the reality of Space.
Back here on Earth, we have all experienced awe. We’ve had our minds “blown” through perceiving something extraordinary and vast. Awe happens in our minds while observing nature, such as a lovely mountainscape. We may feel trancedent while listening to a work of classical music or during meditation. This intense emotion is connected to heightened attention, fear, helplessness, joy, love, submissiveness, and raw power. We feel both the fragility and complexity of life. In the case of astronauts’ Overview Effect, awe is magnified many degrees.
We are able to mentally empathize with the astronauts’ change of perception and exhilaration as a mental concept. While fully engaged in observing a glorious sunset, we can only fantasize about such a thing as the Overview Effect. Apparently, one must actually observe our planet from a distance to authentically experience such a transformation.
Meanwhile, human minds have emulated similar emotions even before Space Travel was ever imagined. We feel overarching feelings when we are in love, or are fully engaged in an activity. We can conceptualize and yearn for the Overview Effect while immersing our attention onto the sky above us.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Carl Sagan. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance–the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”