The Overview Effect

Heather McElhatton

Part of A Beautiful World

The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift that affects some astronauts when they see the earth from space. Many say they no longer identify with a specific nationality or culture after seeing earth from outer space, instead they see themselves, and all citizens on earth, as one people, living on one world. The Overview Effect has been documented by numerous astronauts and cosmonauts, who describe seeing the Earth from in space first-hand like seeing "a tiny, fragile ball of life hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere."

From space, astronauts cannot see physical borderlines or national boundaries, all evidence of division and separateness vanishes. The conflicts that divide countries, cultures and people become less important, and the need o create a peaceful united planetary society, which works together to protect this "pale blue dot," becomes critical.

"There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught… I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it… I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view." - Edgar Mitchell, sixth man on the moon.

It's quite common for astronauts who experience the Overview Effect to engage in global philanthropic works after their return to earth. Astronaut Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who first traveled to space on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2008 and has spent over 128 days in space, felt the Overview Effect on his third space walk and started a philanthropic group called "Fragile Oasis" for astronauts who've experienced similar philosophical shifts. Garan wrote a book about his experience with the Overview Effect titled, "Orbital Perspective" and teamed up with filmmaker Guy Reid to make a documentary called "Planetary," which investigates the phenomenon of the Overview Effect from the perspective of scientists, ecologists, philosophers and Buddhist monks, who all share a common belief the earth is one world, and we are one people.

Joanna Macy, a philosopher and ecologist featured in "Planetary," says you don't have to go to space to experience the Overview Effect, you don't have to be an astronaut. You can feel it just by closely studying an image of earth from space.

"When you study images of earth... you're struck with such a gladness at that beauty and the originality of it, that you don't have time to think about how is it going to turn out. All you know is you'll serve it... to the last breath." - Joanna Macy, philosopher and ecologist


VIDEO: "Planetary"
VIDEO: "Overview" trailer
WEB SITE: Fragile Oasis

Photos courtesy of Guy Reid, Ron Garan and NASA.

Discover more stories from A Beautiful World on Soundcloud
Learn more about A Beautiful World