Your brain on space—the overview effect

October 9, 2018 by Kirsten Flint, Particle
Your brain on space—the overview effect
Could rocketing into space solve all your earthly worries? Credit: NASA/REID WISEMAN

Space travel is like a drug—and it could save the rest of us down here on planet Earth.

Has the current state of the world got you feeling like you'd rather not be part of this planet?

Well, going into space in a rocket might solve all your woes.

Not because you'd be far, far away from all our Earthly chaos, but because of a psychological switch called the overview effect.

Shift your thinking

First described in 1987, the overview effect describes a change in how astronauts feel as they hurtle through space.

It's a profound change, incapable of being fully captured in words.

Looking down on our little blue-green world, sheltered only by a paper-thin atmosphere, there comes an awareness. The incredible fragility of our planet and the pettiness of human borders become clear when looking at Earth from space.

We're not sure of the psychological processes at play in the overview effect, but it is characterised by a strong emotional response.

For many astronauts, looking at our planet from space and recognising its fragility can inspire an overwhelming urge to protect it.

"Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet," said Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. "People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty and not destroy it."

Pale Blue Dot. Credit: CARLSAGANDOTCOM

This shift in awareness doesn't stop once they set foot back on Earth. It's a lasting change that stays with astronauts as long as they live.

Virtual psychology

This powerful shift in human thinking is the kind of thing that the marketing department at Greenpeace could only dream of achieving. Imagine the good you could inspire people to do just by popping them in a rocket for a little universal joy-ride.

With Australia's Space Agency beginning to find its feet, could more of us get the opportunity to look down on planet Earth from above? Probably not any time soon. In the meantime, there's a great VR experience that attempts to mimic the feeling of looking down on Earth from space.

Hopefully, this kind of technology will be successful at recreating the protective urges inspired by real travel. If it is, we might be able to solve some of those problems that make people want to leave Earth in the first place.

Explore further: First to red planet will become Martians: Canada astronaut

Related Stories

First to red planet will become Martians: Canada astronaut

September 22, 2018

Astronauts traveling through space on the long trip to Mars will not have the usual backup from mission control on Earth and will need to think of themselves as Martians to survive, Canada's most famous spaceman half-jokingly ...

Image: Planet of clouds

August 21, 2018

From the vantage point of space, astronaut Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency reminds us of the the beauty and wonder of our planet.

Image: A closer view of the moon

July 10, 2018

Posted to Twitter by @Astro_Alex, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, this image shows our planet's Moon as seen from the International Space Station. As he said in the tweet, "By orbiting the Earth almost 16 ...

What Gagarin saw on his historic flight

March 24, 2011

50 years ago, April 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first human to go into space. What did he see? He described it fairly well, but there are limited pictures and no video from his time in orbit. Now, through a ...

Recommended for you

Researchers investigate the peculiar radio source IC 1531

October 17, 2018

An international team of researchers has investigated a peculiar extragalactic radio source known as IC 1531. The new study analyzes the nature of IC 1531's high-energy emission, suggesting that the source is a radio galaxy. ...

Astronomers find a cosmic Titan in the early universe

October 17, 2018

An international team of astronomers has discovered a titanic structure in the early Universe, just two billion years after the Big Bang. This galaxy proto-supercluster, nicknamed Hyperion, is the largest and most massive ...

Magnetic fields may be the key to black hole activity

October 17, 2018

Collimated jets provide astronomers with some of the most powerful evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart of most galaxies. Some of these black holes appear to be active, gobbling up material from their ...

Double dust ring test could spot migrating planets

October 17, 2018

New research by a team led by an astrophysicist at the University of Warwick has a way of finally telling whether newly forming planets are migrating within the disc of dust and gas that typically surrounds stars or whether ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.