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A trip into space produces physiological effects in human beings, but it can also change a person in a profound, psychological way.

Host: Reid Reimers

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In September 2018, SpaceX announced that Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur, would be taking the first private trip around the moon in the BFR, the giant rocket SpaceX is developing. Not only that, but Maezawa is planning to give tickets for the ride to inspiring artists from all over the world, who will collaborate on a project he’s calling “Dear Moon.” It could be launched as early as 2023, although it will probably be later than that.

That’s one complicated art project, even taking it at face value. But if astronauts’ previous experiences are any indication, this trip might change those artists in a profound, fundamental way. It’s called the overview effect: a major shift in awareness that happens to some astronauts when they see the Earth from space.

We’re only just starting to get an idea of how that shift affects people’s thoughts and behaviors. But it could teach us a lot about a part of the human psyche that we don’t often get insights into. The overview effect was first reported during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, which orbited the Moon, although it wasn’t named until nearly twenty years later.

According to astronauts, it happens when you see the whole world hanging there in the void of space: it gives you an overwhelming awareness of the way the world operates. Apparently you gain a deep appreciation for the beauty and fragility of the planet, as well as the pettiness of human conflict and meaninglessness of geographical borders, among other things. But it’s more than just acknowledging the beauty of the view from all the way up there, or even the complexities of humans as a species.

Astronauts have been quoted as saying that the overview effect made them feel more connected to the planet and everyone living on it. That all of a sudden, when they looked back at the Earth, they could clearly appreciate they were part of something bigger. Many are profoundly psychologically changed by the experience, and come home determined to make a difference.

I’m sure we can all think of a few people we might like to experience this overview effect. But it’s only in the last decade or so that psychologists have begun to look into what exactly causes this massive cognitive shift, and whether it’s something humans can only experience in space or if we can recreate something similar here on Earth. In a 2016 paper published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness, researchers analyzed astronauts’ first-hand accounts of their experiences with the overview effect.

When the team started thinking about existing psychological theories and frameworks from research here on Earth that might explain the phenomenon, they suggested that it may be the work of two factors combined:. First, there’s the psychological experience of awe. And second, there’s self-transcendence, a term that usually refers to the highest level of human consciousness, how we relate to the rest of our species and the rest of the universe.

Those are both things people experience on Earth, too, but often when they show up in psychological research it’s in the context of religious experiences. You can see why both the overview effect and religious experiences might cause similar shifts in someone’s understanding of the universe and their place in it. But you can’t just, like, induce a religious experience in someone.

And even if you could, most people probably wouldn’t want that, regardless of their personal beliefs. Still, there’s something to be said for helping people feel more at one with the universe and part of something bigger than themselves. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to some spiritual awakening.

In some of the most recent research into the overview effect, psychologists looked into how seeing the Earth from space affects astronauts’ feelings of spirituality. And it turns out the overview effect doesn’t seem to cause spiritual changes in astronauts. When the research team asked astronauts to rate the changes they experienced as a result of being in space, spirituality was least changed of all the measured factors.

Instead, the most prominent changes were humanistic, feelings rooted in the value of human welfare, governed more by practical and critical thinking than by a belief in a higher power. Now, it’s worth noting that many of these astronauts already had very high feelings of spirituality, which might be why those feelings didn’t change much. Still, the results suggest that even though this combination of awe and self-transcendence is usually caused by religious experiences for those stuck here on Earth, it may not have to be.

That could mean it’s possible to take advantage of the overview effect in a therapeutic sense. The research hasn’t gotten that far yet, but there’s a lot of potential here. Experiencing these feelings on a grand scale can alter what’s known as a self-schema, a long-lasting, stable system of memories, beliefs, and knowledge that you hold about yourself.

When something comes along and challenges your place in the world, your brain will either reject the challenge, or accommodate the new knowledge by changing your self-schema. Adjusting a self-schema can have a massive effect on someone’s identity and behavior, and it’s often emphasized in certain types of talk therapy. In cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, often the goal is to change unhelpful beliefs about the self, like “I am inherently bad,” in favor of more positive, beneficial thoughts and behaviors.

It’s no surprise, then, that astronauts who accommodate the newfound feeling that they’re part of a huge, complex, fragile ecosystem suddenly feel motivated to make it a better place. And by learning more about the overview effect and the emotions associated with it, we might be able to use what we’ve learned from sending humans to space to help people on Earth develop similarly profound, and healthier, understandings of themselves. Either way, those artists participating in the Dear Moon project may well come back with a very different view of their place in the world, and might create some very different work as a result.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space! We talk a lot about understanding the universe on this channel, but the lens through which we view it can be just as important. So if you’re interested in learning about other strange inner workings of the human brain, not just the ones that happen to people in space, you might want to check out our sister channel SciShow Psych.

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