The Overview Effect: How Seeing the Earth from Space Changes You

I met my friend Victoria at a conference in the Spring of 2012. We spent hours sitting and chatting about life and choices made, and why we did what we did. We bonded over a similar aim in our wanderings. Like me, she traveled because she loves to learn and see and eat and understand, slowly moving from place to place in an attempt to get a feel for its people and its spirit, not just its sights.

In the middle of a conversation, Victoria brought up her husband Steve’s work for the Planetary Collective, and sent me a video of his work. Called Overview, the video explores how astronauts change their belief of our planet when they see the world from space.

This shift is known as the Overview Effect, which I explain more below.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Over and above the sheer beauty of the film and its message, listening to what these astronauts say and how they talk about a world of connectedness resonated. It reflected what I’ve written here, albeit on a much lesser, much less intense scale.

When I posted about how you don’t need to get off the beaten path to connect with others, or about the long travel days that lead to serendipity and friendship, the point wasn’t to say “hey I have fantastic travel stories and am having fun – look at meee!”

The point was to reiterate that the most important benefit to travel for me has been the consistent reminder that we are all connected in one way or another, and we are all more alike than we think.

It’s both a state of gratitude for the privilege and work of building out an unconventional life, and a state of openness that comes with learning from and appreciating the connection to people and planet.

The Overview Effect and seeing Earth from space
Moon over San Pedro de Atacama, my camera squished up against the eye of a telescope. I have no photos of Earth from space, but seeing the moon from Earth was alone pretty incredible. Can only imagine the reverse.

What is The Overview Effect?

The Planetary Collective describes its short film, Overview, thusly:

“Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space have often described the ‘overview effect’ as an experience that has transformed their perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it, and enabled them to perceive it as our shared home, without boundaries between nations or species. ‘Overview’ is a short film that explores this phenomenon through interviews with five astronauts who have experienced the Overview Effect.”

From the film’s transcript, graciously provided by Victoria and Steve, space philosopher Frank White speaks about how he coined the term “the Overview Effect”:

“I was flying cross-country, from the East coast to the West coast in the 1970s, and I was looking out the window.  And as I was looking down at the planet, the thought came to me: anyone living in a space settlement, or living on the moon, would always have an overview. They would see things that we know, but we don’t experience. That the Earth is one system, and we’re all part of that system. And that there is a certain unity and coherence to it all. And I immediately called it the ‘Overview Effect’.”

I have heard travellers describe their own wanderings in a similar way. That you cannot ignore the happenings in other places, or stick your head in the sand. It’s too late. You’ve stepped away and looked at the planet in a different light.

Or, as I said to someone recently “once you’re a pickle you can’t go back to being a cucumber.”

While far less vivid or spectacular than a space trip, travel does tend to push people to think about the forest through the trees and to constantly pin current observations against past experiences. We all do this, naturally.

But I think that the more you see, the more you have to compare ‘against’, which then permanently alters your views of the planet and of its people.

The ultimate example of this, of course, is seeing it all from above, an orb glowing in the darkness of space.

From Overview, astronaut Ron Garan on seeing the earth from space:

“It really does look like this really beautiful oasis out in the middle of nothingness.  And if you have a chance for your eyes to adjust, and you can actually see the stars and the milky way, it’s this oasis against the backdrop of infinity – this enormous universe behind it.”

Or, from Eugene Andrew Cernan, who during the Apollo 17 mission, became the 11th person to walk on the Moon:

Gene Cernan - Apollo 17 and seeing earth from space
Photo via Toby Ord on Twitter

In 2021, I found an album of Toby Ord’s work via Astronomy Picture of the Day, where NASA shared the picture below. Toby has an entire gallery of photos of Earth taken from space. “Only 24 people have journeyed far enough to see the whole Earth against the black of space,” he writes. “The images they brought back changed our world.”

Looking through his full album gave me shivers; a sliver of what those astronauts must have felt.

Photo via NASA on Apollo 17; Restoration by Toby Ord
Photo via NASA on Apollo 17; Restoration by Toby Ord

On Mindfulness and Travel

Many years ago, I wrote about how part of what I sought from my travels was a desire to still the whirring in my mind, to seek a form of mindfulness I had never obtained in my years of contracts and fast-paced city life of New York. Subsequently, my life changed from total freedom of movement to being disabled, and I had to wrangle with trying to find equanimity in the face of what felt like total injustice.

During my travels, I never attained what could be called a “state” of calm but I certainly had moments of it, many of them. They were bursting-out-of-your-chest feelings of wonder and awe and gratitude, and despite not being a remotely religious person it made me want to press my forehead to the ground and to touch the earth in physical way.

In the video Overview Effect video, Edgar Mitchell describes his search for a name to accurately describe what it felt like to see the earth from space:

“When they came back to me a few weeks later, they said, “Well, in the ancient literature we found a description called ‘savikalpa samadhi’. That means that you see things as you see them with your eyes, but you experience them emotionally and viscerally, as with ecstasy, and a sense of total unity and oneness.”

Savikalpa samadhi, the highest of spiritual states of consciousness (each a samadhi), second only to nirvikalpa samadhi (infinite bliss). Descriptions online abound – “In this state the conception of time and space is altogether different. For an hour or two hours you are completely in another world.” (1) or “The body is in a trancelike state, but the consciousness is fully perceptive of its blissful experience within” (2).

I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to see the blue marble of the Earth from space, and it would be trite to fully compare that feeling to my own travels. But as I’ve said above, I can appreciate some measure of what Mitchell and others have said.

Stepping outside of your own world (literally or figuratively) can lead to this sense of gratitude and oneness, an emotional surge of compassion for just about everything. I can only speak to me, but that is how I feel on those days where the whirring stops. I can focus only on the broader picture, instead of the broader picture and all its infinite components. And the longer I travelled, the more frequently the feeling cropped up.

I’ve thought long and hard about why – is it a disconnect from what my colleagues and friends would deem ‘normal’ lives? Is it because I have had the ability to pick and choose where I want to go, removing stressors that I’d otherwise have to handle on a daily basis?  Perhaps some measure of both, but in large part neither: once I saw the world as interconnected and people as more alike than I realized, it was impossible to ‘unsee’ it.

***

In 2017, I wrote “I don’t think I could forget this feeling even if tomorrow I decided to return to the law and take a more traditional route; the type of invisible calibration it entailed seems un-turn-off-able. It’s not constantly at the forefront, but it hasn’t ever left me either.” It’s now 2021, and while I did not return to the law, the botched medical procedure I referenced above left me with a very tiny physical world.

And yet, that feeling of calibration, the ability to feel awe and wonder at the interconnectedness of it all, is still there day to day. These days, without an ability to travel, it comes both from a reframing of what I am facing, and from my own time in nature, where I can get it.

I may never experience the actual Overview Effect, nor an incredible suspension of disbelief or an otherworldly ability to feel fully mindful. But the small, powerful snippets of something like it, wrapped in a blanket of gratitude, have been some of the most beautiful moments of my life, whether I am traveling or not.

-Jodi

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