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Taking an Overview By Thinking Like an Astronaut

It's hard to have a sense of perspective on our own lives, the tiniest things seem incredibly important and the important things are hard to remember. How is it possible to hang on to the big stuff and not sweat the small?

It's hard to have a sense of perspective on our own lives, the tiniest things seem incredibly important and the important things are hard to remember. How is it possible to hang on to the big stuff and not sweat the small?

Maybe the answer is to think like an astronaut. Imagine parachuting out of your life right now, soaring up into the sky and looking down at yourself. Imagine zooming up even higher, the building you're in getting smaller and disappearing into a mass of other places, merging into a blur of different colours. Keep going up, til land and water are just swirls of green and blue, clouds just wisps of white, up again until the curve of the world becomes visible and you finally see the planet as a whole, with your life just one infinitesimal speck in space and time.

Image from NASA on The Commons

Astronauts have this chance to have a radically different perspective, literally looking back on their planet from above. Commander Hadfield's beautiful pictures of the Earth from above gave us a glimpse of it, and Tim Peake, due back next week, has been tweeting similarly stunning images of sunsets from space. Turns out being able to have this perspective has extreme psychological consequences. Astronauts' reaction to looking back at Earth from so far above and away has led psychologists to come up with a specific term: The Overview Effect. David Yaden, Research Fellow, Jonathan Iwry, Research Assistant, both at the University of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Newberg, Medical Doctor at Thomas Jefferson University have written a paper on it, analysing astronauts' accounts of the phenomenon.

The Overview Effect describes "the psychological effects of viewing a landscape from on high," explained Yaden. "While the concept covers any kind of expansive vantage, seeing Earth from space is the epitome of the experience."

"It's like a bird's eye view, but literally on a global scale," added Iwry, "Frank White coined the term when he noticed an interesting commonality in astronauts' accounts of their time in space. When looking down at the earth, a staggering number of them were struck by how beautiful their home looked from up above, and by how much more intense their emotions were than they had expected. Many of them came back with a new perspective on humanity, its relationship to the planet, and our place in the universe."

"We think that three things really stand out about the astronauts' accounts," outlined Iwry. "They described emotions similar to awe and wonder... They were caught off guard by feelings of intense beauty, even overwhelmed. And in some cases, these feelings seemed to change the way they viewed themselves and their relationship to others."

The sensation of awe has been categorised as a response to two types of vastness: perceptual and conceptual. Perceptual vastness is when we look at a landscape like the Grand Canyon, and conceptual vastness comes from thinking about big, mind-blowing ideas, like infinity or evolution. The researchers think that the Overview Effect is triggered by both.

When NASA first realised the psychological effect that seeing the world from above was having they worried it would be distracting, but the effect seems to be a positive one, associated with altruism and wellbeing. Many astronauts suggest that the experience was a defining moment in their lives, causing them to re-evaluate their priorities. "It provides a new perspective on the world in which the individual sees no boundaries between people or countries," said Dr Andrew Newberg. "It provides a sense of oneness and interconnectedness of all people and it also puts humanity in perspective with regard to a massive universe."

So how can we seek out something similar and get a little bit of the overview effect for ourselves? Hiking up tall mountains, finding beautiful views, watching the sunset or looking out of an aeroplane window might all give a flavour of this kind of transcendent experience. Photographs taken from the International Space Station, or virtual reality experiences of the view might get us even nearer. "Short of that, the closest experience is related to meditative or spiritual experiences in which the person feels at one with all things," said Newberg. "Maybe outer space will be the new frontier for exploring inner space," added Iwry.

However we get it, a bit of awe and wonder could be important for our wellbeing. "Awe provides a much larger perspective and in comparison, our daily worries can seem trivial," said Yaden. "Regular doses of awe may be an important part of mental health."