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Have you ever seen something so beautiful, so phenomenally incomparable, that it altered your perspective of yourself and the world around you? Perhaps while staring out at the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, or viewing the swath of orange hues bleeding over the horizon during a sunset, you felt a sense of connection to your environment so intuitive words could hardly explain it.
This visceral sensation is known as the “overview effect,” and it’s commonly reported by astronauts describing the awe they feel while viewing Earth from space. The emotion of awe is defined as a perception of vastness and a need to accommodate it. And according to David B. Yaden, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, the vastness experienced during awe comes across in two different ways.
“There’s perceptual vastness, or seeing something vast, like the Grand Canyon,” Yaden tells BTRtoday. “The other is conceptual vastness, or a big idea that seems to explain everything, such as evolution or infinity. What we see during the overview effect is both aspects of vastness at once.”
Yaden’s area of expertise is in spiritual and self-transcendent experiences, and his interests revolve around what triggers these kinds of experiences. His research focused on astronauts after he began noticing commonalities between accounts of those who experienced spaceflight. The findings were published in the Psychology of Consciousness in March, which Yaden describes as a first step in collecting and understanding these experiences.
“It was a kind of snowball effect, where all of the sudden I was finding dozens of accounts from astronauts describing this intense state of awe and wonder,” Yaden says, “and sometimes these extremely self-transcendent experiences where they were saying, ‘I lost my sense of time, I lost my sense of space, I lost my sense of self and felt a connection to all things.’”
For one thing, astronauts are presented with a fairly exclusive view of our planet. According to Yaden, one of the most striking things astronauts reported was the ability to see the world without the boundaries we associate with landmasses on maps and globes. Just as powerful, Yaden says, is seeing Earth embedded in the infinite blackness of space around it, and coming to understand its fragility as such a minuscule part of the vast cosmos.
The appreciation of that unique perspective is something space travelers hold dear. In 1973, three NASA astronauts held a daylong strike in space due to their overbooked schedule, and among their mission grievances was the general lack of time to process unprecedented human experiences. Though that strike was labor related, Yaden believes there are practical implications to take from the incident as well as the accounts of astronauts.
“As we plan for missions to Mars and longer stays on the Space Station, as simple as it sounds, just having windows on the craft and being able to look out may be an important part of astronaut well-being,” he says.
For Yaden and other researchers, transferring the overview effect into common psychological parlance is another step in understanding the benefits of awe and wonder. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has authored studies about how positive emotions help people live fuller lives and build consequential personal resources. Researchers at Stanford University found that the feeling of awe not only alters decision making and improves well-being, but can also expand a person’s perception of time.
“Awe seems to increase our general sense of well-being, and it’s also associated with compassion and altruism,” Yaden explains.
Here on Earth, self-transcendent accounts of wonder and awe are usually associated with spiritual environments, such as meditation or religious retreat settings. However, noted atheist philosophers Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Harris, and Bertrand Russell all described experiences of this kind. Psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins has found that cancer patients who receive psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, report sensations similar to the overview effect described by astronauts.
According to Yaden, a great deal us are able to achieve that overarching sense of awe, albeit through different triggers. Various studies have shown that one third of the cross-cultural populations have reported the feeling of being at one with all things. Still, it seems a person’s state of mind is the key determinant in the frequency with which similar sensations are reached.
“It seems like people vary dispositionally on their capacity for these kinds of experiences, and their tendency to have them,” Yaden says. “I would guess that everyone is capable of dealing with some degree of awe and wonder.”
Researchers of positive emotions agree that the impact of awe on overall mental health is stark, and that people should seek out the emotion when they have the time. Yaden believes that the search for awe is intuitive in our shared desire to go outside and seek out beautiful natural spaces. Some awe is undoubtedly transcendent, but as he puts it, even a little bit of wonder can go a long way.
“Regular doses of awe are part of mental health, and it’s worth remembering that,” he says. “I think there’s a spectrum here that’s important to keep in mind that ranges from the more routine, and daily, and subtle, to the intense, and visceral, and potentially transformative.”