earth from moon
Seeing the Earth from afar (here from the moon) produces a sensation of intense awe in astronautsNASA

Psychologists are investigating the sensation of awe and wonder that astronauts experience when they get a good view of Earth from space. This phenomenon, referred to as "the overview effect", can provide scientists with a better understanding of cosmonauts' psychological state when they travel in space.

Led by scientists from University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, the study is published in the Journal Of The Psychology Of Consciousness. It is only the first step of a larger research project, which has two goals.

First, by investigating astronauts' psychological state, the psychologists hope to better prepare them for longer space travel − for instance, the planned mission to Mars. Second, they seek to understand how to induce the same sensation of awe in people who have never been in space.

Understanding the extreme phenomenon

The study focuses on testimonies from many astronauts, who recalled viewing the Earth from space. The authors analysed quotes and speeches in which they identified common philosophical ideas, such as unity, vastness, connectedness and perception. All of these suggested they had experienced an overwhelming, life-changing moment.

The scientists describe this feeling as an extreme version of the sensation of awe we may experience when looking at a nice landscape. "We watch sunsets whenever we travel to beautiful places to get a little taste of this kind of experience. These astronauts are having something more extreme," says lead author David Yaden. "By studying the more-extreme version of a general phenomenon, you can often learn more about it."

earth from space
North America as seen from spaceNasa/Barcroft USA/Getty Images

Their analysis and the common sensations identified in astronauts confirm the existence of an "overview effect". The next step is to collaborate with astronauts who have returned from space to get more accurate and detailed descriptions of the mechanisms behind this psychological phenomenon.

Virtual reality to the rescue

Eventually, the researchers hope to come up with concrete recommendations that will contribute to astronauts' well-being during extended space missions.

For now, to prepare astronauts for what they will experience in space, but also to let people who will never leave Earth feel the same awe, the authors have planned an original follow-up experiment. They want to use virtual reality to give participants an opportunity to look at Earth from afar.

They believe this could lead to a sensation similar to the overview effect, with benefits for astronauts and non-astronauts alike.

"In the end, what we care about is how to induce these experiences," lead co-author Johannes Eichstaedt concludes. "They help people in some ways be more adaptive, feel more connected, re-frame troubles."