“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. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
– Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, on seeing Earth from space.
When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth in 1961, he was more impacted by the overwhelming beauty of the planet than the magnificent universe outside. As hundreds of astronauts follow Gagarin’s lead into space and told their stories, a pattern emerged.
The overview effect is a state of mental clarity reported by generations of astronauts while viewing Earth from outer space for the first time. Seeing our fragile blue globe ‘hanging in the void’ creates a sense of interconnectedness that makes many space travellers feel compelled to protect Earth and fight against inequality when they return. Astronauts describe the experience as sudden, but life changing. The phenomenon can entirely reshape how one sees environmental, social and political issues.
Experiencing the overview effect gives astronauts a cosmic perspective that others – particularly world leaders – lack. Due to the nature of modern politics and the pressure of public opinion, politicians fail to think beyond their terms, and prioritise cheap, short-term solutions over long-term human progress. Of course, sending everyone to space to transform their views is impractical, at least until space tourism becomes affordable and effective. But there is an accessible and exciting alternative on its way.
Now, in hopes of waking people up to the bigger picture, scientists are attempting to recreate the intense visual and emotional experience using virtual reality (VR). Recent innovations in software development, screen technology, and headset design make it possible to simulate the overview effect. There is compelling evidence from Stanford University suggesting that VR experiences can produce positive changes in behaviour and increase empathy towards fellow humans – even from short recordings in low resolution headsets. Many have already had a taste of the overview effect while playing mainstream VR games. In a recent trial conducted by the University of Missouri, psychologists are recruiting 100 people to try the VR headset at a spa. Volunteers will climb into a dark, salt-laden flotation tank to mimic the zero gravity sensation of being in orbit. The VR headset will play a high definition, 360 degree immersive video set in space. Though not everyone is expected to experience the overview effect, the experiment will reveal what happens when people’s senses are fooled into believing that they are observing Earth from outer space.
Cognitive scientists report that storytelling is crucial to designing a VR experience that generates the same feelings as the overview effect. Flawless movements and a smooth narrative arc, with the overview effect as the climax, are required. This also enhances presence, which is vital to eliciting emotional responses.
Further, recent studies on altruism conducted by the American Psychological Association and Guangzhou University suggest that people are more likely to make ethical decisions, be generous, and promote prosocial behaviour after experiencing awe. Researchers believe that the overview effect works in a similar way, and hope that the effect can be used to address the environmental concerns that Earth is currently facing. More could be done about the climate crisis, for example, if a global consciousness could be created, a cognitive shift breaking down political and social barriers and promoting care for the environment.
Collectively sharing this new VR experience could have profound effects. If the upcoming experiment is successful, it has the potential to unite people in a time of great division and increase action on multi-generational problems. This gives VR and the overview effect incredible power, and may well spur collective solutions to several global challenges currently facing us.