How Seeing the Earth From Space Actually Changes Your Brain | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
If you get a chance to see Earth from faraway... your brain could well change FOREVER! Join us... to find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the psychological phenomenon that many astronauts go through - the Overview Effect! It happens when you journey into space and view Earth from a great distance, and so only a few hundred people have ever experienced it. What's it like? And will we all get to feel it in the future?? We find out in the video!

How Seeing the Earth from Space Actually Changes Your Brain

Seeing Earth from space is a privilege very few people will ever be afforded, at least until we start colonizing other worlds. Fewer than 600 people have ever been to space, with many countries not having a single astronaut in their histories. But many of those lucky few have talked about the profound experience of seeing our planet from orbit.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; how does seeing the Earth from space actually change your brain?

Not every space traveler has reported this phenomenon, but many have. It’s called the “Overview Effect”, and is a deep and perhaps indescribable feeling conjured when viewing Earth from afar. Since the beginning of spaceflight, astronauts have reported feeling more connected to humanity than ever, despite being further away than anybody before them. They see the Earth suspended in the vast vacuum of space, seemingly about to fall into the sun but miraculously remaining in orbit, and are struck by how fragile the planet is, and how amazing its existence is at all. Travelers from cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, to William Shatner in 2021, have reported experiencing this sensation. It’s true that Earth’s position in the cosmos is a lot more precarious than we might think from going about our days on the planet’s surface, as well as much rarer. We all know that the Earth is the only habitable planet we’ve yet found in the entire universe, but to really think about it, about how many billions of planets are out there and how the vast majority of them have no way to support life at all, is to realize that Earth is more precious than we can possibly comprehend. This is exactly what Michael Collins, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, meant when he talked about Earth’s immense “fragility”, while Shatner talked about the “ugliness” of empty space in comparison to Earth.

Even the best images haven’t been able to capture that sensation for us non-space travelers. Without seeing the Earth from the moon or even just from orbit, we just can’t really know what the overview effect feels like. We can perhaps experience it a little by looking at the moon. On average, Earth’s natural satellite is 239,000 miles away on average, but we can make out an incredible amount of detail just with the naked eye. However, while this may evoke a sense of wonder, we see the moon almost every night - and often during the day too. Sure, the moon is remarkable - especially given the fact that scientists still aren’t completely sure how it formed or how unique the Earth-Moon system is in the universe. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the overview effect, because the moon is always there stoically watching over us. We see and feel the impact of the moon every day; it illuminates the planet at night and controls the tides - movement that’s extremely important for many ecosystems.

However, some people haven’t been satisfied with the idea that only the select few who are selected or rich enough to go to outer space get to experience the profundity of the overview effect. In 2018, Dutch non-profit start-up SpaceBuzz began developing a virtual reality experience to bring the overview effect to the masses, in collaboration with astronaut André Kuipers. The following year saw the launch of a separate trial spearheaded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who was part of the Apollo 14 moon landing. The plan for this project, which is being undertaken by researchers at the University of Missouri, is to use VR headsets and an isolation tank to make people really feel like they’re out in space. But if you don’t have an isolation tank to hand, never fear: so long as you have access to a VR headset, you can take part in this experience. It’s available to download completely free on the video game platform Steam, under the name “The Edgar Mitchell Overview Effect VR Experience”. So, if you’ve got a VR headset then you can see how it feels. Without the sensation of weightlessness, or the very real potential danger up there, VR isn’t going to feel the same as actually seeing Earth from space – but it’s the closest we’ve got right now.

Fortunately, there are astonishing things here on Earth that can fill you with a sense of wonder and amazement in a similar way to the overview effect. Many people have described the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon in Arizona in such terms. Teddy Roosevelt announced that every American should see the Grand Canyon in their lifetime, just as astronaut Edgar Mitchell believes that everyone should get to see the Earth from space and experience the overview effect. It’s a lot easier to get to the Grand Canyon than outer space though, even if you live on the other side of the world. People who have seen it have described similar feelings of transcendentalism, as well as a connection with nature and a new appreciation for everything under the sun. You may be hit with similar feelings if you see the world from the peak of Mt Everest after scaling it, or if you see the endless sands of the Rub’ al Khali desert. Even vast, man-made structures can fill you with a sense of awe, like the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza.

The overview effect is not the only noted psychological effect of space travel, either. Though the physical effects are well known – like the risk of radiation exposure or the struggles of readjusting to Earth’s gravity – astronauts struggle mentally, too. They have to be very mentally stable to embark upon a space mission because such missions are, by their nature, very dangerous and very isolated. But it’s been reported that many astronauts have become psychologically strained upon returning to Earth. This is in stark contrast to the transcendental overview effect. While the overview effect is the immediate experience of somebody going to space, eventually, anxiety will make itself felt because of the high-stress situation. Many even depend on pharmaceuticals once they’re up there in order to sleep properly without the normal day/night cycle. Psychological concerns are one reason of many why we still haven’t sent a crewed mission to Mars.

There is, however, one final feeling that looking on the wonder of planet Earth may evoke: cosmic indifference, or nihilism. Though the idea of cosmic indifference descends from the weird fiction of the 1920s, you can get a very real sense of it without the existence of alien elder gods. It’s like William Shatner said: Earth is small compared to the “ugliness” of space, and the thing Shatner found so ugly was its sheer emptiness. The universe is incomprehensibly vast and complex, something that not only can we never fully understand but that will kill us if it gets the opportunity. But it won’t kill us because it’s malicious, it will do this because we are so insignificant.

Though this is a depressing way to look at space exploration, one needs only to think about the vastness of stars and black holes to get a sense for the kernel of truth within cosmic nihilism. Our sun, for instance, is not a particularly noteworthy star; it may be necessary for all life on Earth, but there are many stars hotter and much bigger than ours. The biggest star we have yet discovered is UY Scuti, possibly the largest star in the Milky Way. It’s 9,500 lightyears away from Earth and its radius is 1,700 times larger than the sun, while the sun’s is 109 times larger than Earth’s.

An even greater existential threat are black holes. At the center of every large galaxy, there resides a monstrous black hole with enough gravitational power to keep the whole galaxy tethered to it. Black holes are truly nightmarish, points in spacetime where the laws of physics are corrupted and devoured. There are some black holes that are billions of times bigger than the sun. Black holes are not sentient, but if you fell into one, even inside a spacecraft, you would die a painful and gruesome death. A wandering black hole would be more than capable of destroying our entire solar system; in fact, there are black holes significantly larger than the solar system itself. That is cosmic nihilism.

Being an astronaut is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but for all its difficulties, the overview effect alone might make it all worthwhile. And that’s how seeing the Earth from space actually changes your brain.