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The Overview Effect - Musings and Meditations

Updated: May 24

“When I went to the Moon I was a pragmatic test pilot. But when I saw the planet Earth floating in the vastness of space the presence of divinity became almost palpable and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident.”

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

Carl Sagan

“People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, and not destroy it.”

Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space

 “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Earth as seen from the International Space Station.

Dear readers and followers of A Biosphere Project,

In this musing of two weeks ago, I suggested that we are actually all still “flat-earthers,” in the sense that we have not yet truly integrated the images of our small, fragile planet in space into our consciousness, into our embodied sense of identity and place.

Most of us have never seen Earth from space, and the overwhelmingly dominant perspective for virtually all earthlings remains that of a giant, flat, seemingly endless Earth right under our feet, with a kind of “dome” above our heads in which clouds may or may not be floating around. That's what all our senses tell us, and it is hard to reconcile images of Earth taken from space with that impression, something most of us don't really aspire to try on a regular basis either. The knowledge that Earth is round, and orbiting a star in infinite space, is something that for most of us is a mere mental knowledge in the back of our minds, something we are not really aware of in our daily lives. It is also a frightening thought for many people, something they would rather not think too much about.

'Save the Planet' is a common slogan in the environmental movement, but do we really know what we are talking about when we say the word 'planet'? Do we really feel what we want to 'save'? Do we really feel what it is to live on a planet spinning in endless space? And is it necessary to feel that or be really aware of that?

The only living souls who have ever seen the Earth from the outside are astronauts, and we can say that they are a very small minority of the world's population. But those people who have had the privilege of seeing the Earth from space have, in most cases, been changed for life. That experience that so many astronauts testify to is called the 'overview effect', and it must be a particularly moving and intense experience. an experience that also has a lasting transformative effect.

Most astronauts testify to a special sense of one-ness with all of humanity, and a poignant experience of the beauty as well as the sense of fragility of our planet. They also testify to a penetrating awareness of the need to protect our fragile and very thin biosphere.

In the beautiful four-minute video below, two astronauts who spent a long time on the ISS give an impression of the 'overview effect', as well as its implications for our perspective on things like national borders, conflicts, attachment to material possessions, and the damage we do to our planet's biosphere.

Beautiful four-minute video in which two former astronauts give their accounts of the 'overview effect’, and of the realization of the fragility of our planet and the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on Earth

At the end of that previous musing, I already mentioned one of those astronauts who had a special experience of the ‘overview effect’ during a space trip: Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to ever set foot on the moon.

The astronauts of the Apollo missions had a different experience than astronauts who have been in space before or since: namely, they have been much further away from Earth. All other astronauts up to now have 'only' been in low orbit, the altitude at which the ISS orbits, i.e. about four hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface. The Earth is still very large and close by at that altitude, a bit like being in an airplane but much higher. Certainly also a very impressive sight, and already certainly cause for profound moments of ‘overview effect’.

But on the trips to the moon and back, the astronauts really got a next level of ‘overview', and saw the smallness Earth in the endless black space. So the 'overview effect' was even stronger for Apollo astronauts than for astronauts in the former Skylab or the International Space Station.

Earth photographed by astronaut Bill Anders from orbit around the moon, Apollo 8 mission, Dec. 24, 1968. Credit: NASA / restored by Toby Ord.

The experience Mitchell had during the Apollo 14 mission, then, was a very strong version of the overview effect: on the return trip to Earth, upon seeing our planet in endless space he experienced a mystical experience of unification and wordless insight into the interconnectedness of everything, an experience the Eastern spiritual traditions call “savikalpa samādhi” .

The experience of samâdhi is one of the strongest experiences in consciousness that a human being can experience, and many great yogis have testified to the fundamental change of perspective that results from samãdhi. It is the experience that can also be a consequence of the most advanced forms of meditation.

This profound experience also led Mitchell, as a scientist, to look differently at aspects of reality that had been actually rather taboo subjects for science until then. His experience in consciousness led him to embark on a scientific study concerning that phenomenon of consciousness, and the relationship of consciousness to what we experience as existence and the ‘external’ world.

To that end, Mitchell founded the Institute Of Noetic Sciences, or IONS, in 1973.

The term “Noetic” comes from the Greek word noēsis/noētikos that means inner wisdom, direct knowing, intuition, or implicit understanding. William James, the American philosopher, and psychologist, defined noetic experiences as “states of knowledge”. So one can see ‘noetic sciences’ as the sciences dealing with intuitive knowledge and ‘inner knowing’.

I would argue without hesitation that IONS is, in my opinion, responsible for some of the most groundbreaking and mind-boggling scientific research findings of the past few decades. In this blog I am going to talk quite often about IONS and the discoveries to which decades of research have led at this California-based institute, because many of the insights that have emerged from that research have not yet penetrated the collective consciousness and worldview at all. But I'll leave that for next week's musing.

For now, I will circle back to the ‘overview effect’ that was and is experienced by so many astronauts. Many astronauts and scientists suggest that it would be a good thing if more people could experience that overview effect. According to all who have experienced it, It leads to a profound transformation of human consciousness, a profound awareness of the fragility of our Earth, our connectedness as planet dwellers in an endless Universe, the need to develop a global civilization based on cooperation and synergy, and the pursuit of safeguarding our biosphere for all life forms with which we share the planet.

In the following short but beautiful video, the ‘overview effect’ is once again described by a dozen astronauts. Their testimonies are accompanied by beautiful images taken from the ISS, images that, according to the astronauts, do not do justice to the experience itself. No doubt that assessment is true, but I keep looking at these images with awe, wonder and gratitude. I think it wouldn't hurt if everyone looked at these or similar images at least once a day. Warmly recommended!

Beautiful eight-minute video in which a dozen astronauts testify to the ‘overview effect’. Their testimony is accompanied by beautiful images taken from the ISS.

There is a real inquiry happening as to how more people can get to experience that 'overview effect.' Going on a space trip will remain impossible for just about all people on Earth for the foreseeable future, but ways are being developed to offer a sort of simulation of the experience through 'virtual reality' combined with 'float tanks.' The IONS already offers such a VR version of the ‘overview effect’. This too will undoubtedly not match the real experience of the overview effect, but every little bit helps: the more people become aware of the smallness and fragility of our planet in space and our interconnectedness as inhabitants of this small and beautiful world, the more a transformation can begin to unfold in the global consciousness of identity, our felt sense of place and time and space.

That is what I want to contribute to from my background as a visual artist: awareness of our place, time and space on our small, vulnerable planet, and awareness of a phenomenon that we usually overlook because we are always IN it: our consciousness itself. Hence, the caption to A Biosphere Project's logo reads, “Consciousness and The Living Planet”. Because in my opinion (and that of many others who have been researching these fields for a long time) we can only change course through a transformation of our consciousness itself.

I want to make my contribution not (anymore) through the making of visual art, but through A Biosphere Project: a combination of word and image, inspired and informed by my experience as a teacher in the domain of observation and perception, and by my many years of inquiry in my practice of painting, a practice in which I was also concerned with the ways in which we view reality through glasses that distort or even render invisible a great part of reality. I want to use my experience in the ways people do NOT perceive something to help people perceive our planet in a different way, and to arrive at a kind of 'overview effect'. Not the same as what astronauts can experience, but still: according to me it is possible, by means of observation and meditation exercises, to arrive at a form of consciousness-expanding perception, which, in the absence of space travel, can help us to get more 'overview' of our situation, and of ourselves. For our inner experience, our awareness, our consciousness, is as much terra incognita as the space in which our planet moves. 

So, enough material to continue musing for some time to come. 

As Edgar Mitchell put it, “Buckminster Fuller said, ‘If you want to understand the human condition, you must first understand the Universe.’ But any great mystic would say, “If you want to understand the Universe, you must first understand the Self. They are both right”

The Institute Of Noetic Sciences, as mentioned above founded by Edgar Mitchell,  has been conducting pioneering research for decades into the nature of our consciousness, and the relationship of our consciousness to what we call ‘reality’. It is developing models that can explain phenomena that are now excluded from 'mainstream' scientific research. And it is a bona fide scientific institution, conducting peer reviewed research under the direction of chief scientist Dean Radin that meets the highest standard of scientific methodology. The IONS is certainly not the only place where that kind of research is being conducted, and I will also talk in the blog about other institutions and scientists who are 'boldly going where no man has gone before': exploring with an open mind how it is that we are conscious, and why that consciousness should not be considered an 'epiphenomenon'.

And as mentioned above, insights have already emerged from those decades of pioneering work that may be fairly baffling - at least to us Westerners, because Eastern intuition recognized all those things a long time ago.

More on Edgar Mitchell and the Institute Of Noetic Sciences next week.

So much for this episode, thanks for reading,

All the best to you,


The last image (for now) of the whole Earth taken by a human being, during Apollo 17, 17 December 1972. Credit: NASA / restored by Toby Ord



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