The Overview Effect

Last week I watched a show about enlightenment. During part of the discussion, I heard the term, “the overview effect”. This is a phrase, and then a book written by Frank White, a space philosopher. Mr. White had the uncommon decision to join the Air Force Academy (he secretly wished to be an astronaut), or take an offer to attend Harvard with scholarship money. He chose Harvard, and then involved himself with something called the Space Studies Institute in order to pursue his fascination with outer space.

His studies tried to answer the question of why we need to travel in space. Was there a larger purpose we needed to fulfill? He really wanted to understand the philosophy behind human space exploration. In the course of his studies he interviewed a lot of astronauts, and here are some of his takeaways:

  • It is hard to explain in words the feeling that you get from looking at Earth from space
  • Astronauts realize they are getting a view that not many humans will ever have
  • Moving around the Earth changes your sense of time, a manmade construct
  • Zero gravity changes your perspective on being Earth-bound
  • People will never understand the overview effect through words – only through space travel

Basically, the “overview effect” is a “cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during space flight, often while viewing Earth from outer space.”

We have the potential, as a human species, in the not-to-distant future, to travel into outer space on commercial flights. More and more people will have the opportunity to experience the overview effect. How will this impact our relationships on Earth?

My thought is that having a wider lens may be just the ticket for resolving some of today’s hottest problems. No visual boundaries will lead us to examine our relationships with people of other nations, religions, and cultures. Seeing the atmosphere, and the interconnectedness we have on this planet may invoke massive social action on the climate change issue – the most deadly threat we have right now. And most of all, that experience may lead to more personal examinations on who we really are and why we are here.

My hope is that this happens soon. The sooner, the better for all of us. Not only can we apply the overview effect to our Earth, but in our own microclimates, keeping us aware that we are all in this together. Let’s make the best of that. Have a great weekend, Cheers, Deb

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