The overview effect, as the experience is called, refers to a profound reaction to viewing the earth from outside its atmosphere. A number of astronauts have attributed deep feelings of awe and even self-transcendence to this experience. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell described it as an “explosion of awareness” and an “overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness… accompanied by an ecstasy… an epiphany.”
The intense and singular states of awareness triggered by viewing the Earth from space provide a new context in which to explore awe-inspiring stimuli, their psychological effects, and individual differences in sensitivity to such potentially transformative experiences.
It is now recognized within the space community that some who observe Earth from space report that they have felt overcome with emotion, have come to see themselves and their world differently, and have returned to Earth with a renewed sense of purpose.
Astronauts specify that it is not merely being in space that makes their time there so meaningful—there is something unique and profound about viewing and contemplating Earth from a distance.
You identify with Houston and then you identify with Los Angeles and Phoenix and New Orleans… and that whole process of what it is you identify with begins to shift when you go around the Earth… you look down and see the surface of that globe you’ve lived on all this time, and you know all those people down there and they are like you, they are you—and somehow you represent them. You are up there as the sensing element, that point out on the end… you recognize that you’re a piece of this total life.
Two particular features of the astronauts’ views seem to contribute to feelings of awe. First, the juxtaposition of Earth’s features against the black vacuum of space might be sufficient to emphasize themes both perceptual (beauty, activity, visible signatures of human civilization) and conceptual (vitality, interconnectedness, preciousness). Second, the difference in visual orientation toward familiar landmarks might be sufficient to elicit conceptual awe, creating a surreal effect by presenting well-known natural and human features from a radically different perspective.
During these kinds of experiences, people can feel a sense of connection with other individuals, humankind, and even the entirety of existence.
When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing.
When individuals encounter something that cannot be reduced to preexisting elements in a given schema, they must “accommodate,” expanding that framework to take new information into account. To the extent that profound alterations in self-awareness and identification can settle into differences in personal identity, those particular differences might be thought of as changes to the observer’s “self-schema”—the particular framework through which they imagine themselves in relation to the world.