Over three decades back, author and space philosopher, Frank White coined the term “The Overview Effect” to describe a phenomenon reported after space voyages. When astronauts look back at the earth, they experience a profound appreciation for the fragility with which the Earth is held in space. It appears as a pale blue-green dot spinning in a vast empty space. Experiencing this fragility and vulnerability of the earth relative to the vastness of space brings about a spontaneous reframing of reality. Reading about the earth being like a blue-green marble in the infinite emptiness of space is one thing, but watching it from a distance, while still feeling emotionally connected with it, creates a whole new shift with respect earth’s place within the universe and our place within the earth. Astronauts who have experienced “The Overview Effect” report an inner transformation of sorts where they begin to feel a strong urge to protect the planet. This love for the planet comes with respect for all those who inhabit it.
In 1961, when Yuri Gagarin returned from his space voyage, he said:
“People of the earth, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, and not destroy it”.
Rakesh Sharma too reported something profound.
While the expressions and words used to describe this experience may differ, there is an underlying similarity in these messages brought back by astronauts. Here are two wonderful quotes from the book, “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution” by Frank White.
“You can’t see the boundaries over which we fight wars, and in a very real way, the inhabitants of this Earth are stuck on a very beautiful, lovely little planet in an incredibly hostile space, and everybody is in the same boat.”
—Space Shuttle astronaut Don L. Lind
“When you go above the planet, what you see is a system that is highly connected and interwoven.”
—Shuttle and ISS astronaut Sandy Magnus
Only a select few get a chance to travel to space, but I think as we journey through life, we experience our version of “The Overview Effect”. We get a little bit of perspective about the interconnected nature of life. The pandemic made this interconnectedness very clear, not only in how the disease spread but also in terms of how we experienced it. All of a sudden, our friends and colleagues all over the world were experiencing very similar fears. The similarities in how we live showed up on video calls – whether it was young little children running in the background, familiar household activities going on alongside or souvenirs displayed on the cabinets facing the camera. At work, we experience “The Overview Effect” a little differently. Our corporate life teaches us to zoom out, and see “the big picture” so that we can think and contribute beyond our individual goals and derive our sense of satisfaction from how our work helps the entire organisation including team members we may have never met.
The Overview Effect versus our sensitivities
In our day-to-day lives, there are instances when certain things disturb us – it could be a rude comment, a scratch on the car, or our own annoyance about not expressing ourselves in the best possible way in a meeting. No matter how much we try to take our attention away from these unpleasant experiences, our mind keeps coming back to them. It’s almost as though our universe has shrunk and all that matters is just that one thing that disturbed us. At times it takes a bigger event of far more significance to take our attention away from this disturbance. It is the bigger event that brings the perceptual shift that helps us realize that our response to the disturbance may be out of balance. It helps us realize that perhaps it is our interpretation of what happened that sent our minds into this tizzy. I wonder if “The Overview Effect” could come to our rescue when we get affected by these disturbances. Reminding ourselves that we are living on a planet that is magically spinning in almost a void in outer space, could help us stop worrying about relatively less fascinating occurrences like the possibility of being judged for saying something that wasn’t perfectly articulated or for laughing out loud and noticing someone around as frown at us.
The Overview Effect and the perspective on differences and diversity
What if we shifted our attention to how we are a part of this interconnected web that brings this planet alive because of all the diversity in lifeforms that thrive on it. Having associated the word planet with Earth all our lives, we often don’t tend to look at it as a system or a large organism with different lifeforms functioning as different constituents, each serving a different purpose. Likewise, as humans, our individual differences are also a part of this system and are meant to cohesively support and sustain the planet. This change of perspective for one another and ourselves may help us think differently and ask ourselves about ways in which we can appreciate differences.
March 1st is celebrated as World Compliment Day, a global initiative to spread joy through compliments. This may be a good week for us to think about some ways of appreciating those who may be very different from us and maybe creating value in ways very different to ours. Would love to hear thoughts on “The Overview Effect” and the thoughts that it triggered in your mind about the universe and our place in itBig