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The Overview Effect

A much-needed shift in perspective.

"Once a photograph of the earth, taken from outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any history, will be let loose" – Fred Hoyle, 1948.

The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is a perspective-altering experience that somehow immediately transforms anyone who has been able to see planet earth from afar. After launching into space, the crew of Apollo 8 circled the moon and then turned the camera back on the earth – the image of a pulsing blue-green orb hanging precariously in black space was beamed back to humanity on earth. The crew realized that far more important than journeying to the moon was the sight of the earth from this new angle, forever changing their perspective on the planet and mankind’s place upon it.

Common features of the "Overview Effect" include a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment. It's commonly bemoaned that the first "space tourism" flights that could launch in the next decade or so will be available only for the rich and powerful elite. But let us hope that it is they who have the transformational experience of the overview effect.

29 comments on the article “The Overview Effect”

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Anonymous

A lot of this can pair quite nicely with Edward Burtynsky's work Manufactured Landscapes. It is a great documentary, allowing the audience to form their own views on the scale of development. The collection of images and footage might be overly polarized, but they all illustrate human processes on our planet and the scale of impact associated with them. I would be highly interested in seeing mapping or images associated with the Overview Effect showing the scale of human development on Earth.

Anonymous

While Manufactured Landscapes has a vital massage, the hit-one-over-the-head presentation style can tell against that important massage.

Anonymous

"Listen to Doug discuss the limitations of conventional space media" - why?. Why would anyone want to listen to yet another NASA talking-head? A Little Little Talk - A Little More Action footage?

Anonymous

Doug Trumbull isn't a NASA talking head, he's the visual effects guru behind 2001, Blade Runner and Close Encounters, and he invented IMAX. He's worth listening to. But I suppose the evidence is in the way you speak ("why would anyone listen"), that you sir are just a troll looking for attention. peace out

Anonymous

Sorry, on revisiting, my comment was not well penned. And yet, while an important massage, Doug Trumbull seemed just a little over-the-top. No I am not a troll, but I was looking for attention - for my comments.

Anonymous

I like the video and the messages 'we are all connected' and 'the earth's atmosphere is more fragile than we realise' are hard to argue with, but as someone who has a fascination with cognition I can't help but wonder if this experience of an 'overview effect' couldn't be explained as the product of a cultural narrative rather than a spontaneous reaction. What I mean is, astronauts go into space knowing they are about to have an incredibly rare and privileged experience which often has been the culmination of decades of preparation and hard work. That they would experience something deeply moving and meaningful during the trip, especially when other astronauts already reported something similar, seems somewhat inevitable to me. I am genuinely curious if such a sensation extends to astronauts with a deeper sense of nationalism, do Chinese astronauts and Russian astronauts report these same experiences or is it a largely American phenomenon? Also, how common is it? Do most astronauts report a spontaneous feeling of unity after visiting space or is it a vocal minority? I don't mean these issues to get in the way of the useful message the film is promoting but it does leave me with questions about the 'overview effect'.

David Beaver

As the co-founder of the Overview Institute, my background is cognitive science, specifically the relationship between perception and media images. After studying hundreds of astronaut accounts, I can report that nearly all of them report some aspect and degree of shifted perspective. The vast majority can be traced to the direct perception of the Earth as a small, fragile planet moving though a vast star filled universe and the implications that brings. While previous accounts clearly influence later travelers, this is certainly analogous to hearing accounts of the Amazon and then seeing it firsthand. Words and pictures obviously have inherent limitations to communicate visceral personal experiences. This is the impetus behind art and poetry (and astronauts have often suggested that artists and poets should go into space to communicate it to us). Secondly, mission specialists, a couple of congressmen, a half dozen "space tourists” and even (to address another question) a Saudi prince, all without the years of preparation, gave some of the most dramatic reports. Finally, the "Unity" is more the unity of the Earth itself and the resultant "We're all in this together" feeling, just to clarify.

Anonymous

Thanks for the reply David. I appreciate your points and hope you don't think with my questions I am trying to diminish the importance of developing a more unified global perspective however, I am still not quite convinced that a specific 'overview effect' can be ascertained even with hundreds of accounts of astronauts (private individuals would I suspect be even more motivated to regard the experience as transformative given the amounts they invest for the privilege). There are for instance hundreds of thousands of people who when visiting specific religious site will have a strong emotional response due to their beliefs, backgrounds and expectations but it doesn't mean that those sites have some inherent power to transform perspectives- its essentially the narratives that do that. So my wonder here is whether we are talking about a cultural narrative or a more objective spontaneous reaction. Hence, I am very interested if is a transnational effect that is found in astronauts with less influence from 'Western' narratives? Are there many such accounts from non-English sources i.e. Russian cosmonauts?

I personally hope there is something about viewing the earth from space which invites a perspective shift unilaterally but aside from the point above we also have some evidence from history, namely from the invention of flight which show how initial excitement can fade and result in something promised to be life altering into something mundane i.e. when flight was first invented the first few hundred people to fly would have provided similar glowing accounts of the life changing nature of experiencing flight and how it opened their minds to the future but you don't tend to hear that after many flights now. Similarly, while I have no doubt that seeing the earth from space must be dazzling (and even more so when you know you are one of only a few hundred people to every have done so) I remain curious as to whether, when space flight has become less of an 'event', we will still talk of an 'overview effect' or viewing the earth from space will become akin to looking out the window of a plane and commenting on how the people look like ants. Beautiful certainly, but not necessarily bringing a long lasting shift in perspective.

Perhaps I'm too cynical... ;)

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