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The Biophilic Mind: An Astronaut’s View
Aug 14

The Biophilic Mind: An Astronaut’s View

By Dr. Katilyn Mascatelli, Ecopsychology Research Scientist

Every space movie has a scene like this: after a long, bumpy launch, our hero astronaut looks out of the spaceship window and sees, to her astonishment, Earth in the distance. As the music swells, the planet glistens like a marble and our astronaut lets out a low whistle of amazement.

You’ve seen this movie, right?

I have, and while this kind of scene may seem cliché, the astronaut’s experience of awe and wonder at the sight of Earth is real and might impact her environmental attitudes and behaviors for years to come. Viewing the Earth from space like this sometimes leads to a phenomenon called “the overview effect”, which author Frank White first coined in 1987 to mean a cognitive shift in awareness that alters ones perceptions of themselves and the planet. Notably, some astronauts have reported that seeing the Earth from space like this leads to a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the planet.

This potential impact of the overview effect on astronauts’ ecological attitudes and behaviors is the focus of a recent article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology  In this study the author interviewed 14 people who had been to space (13 astronauts and 1 “space tourist”) about their experiences (or lack thereof) with the overview effect and how it changed their thinking about the Earth and environmental issues.

I want to highlight that this study is different than others I have discussed in this column before because it uses a primarily qualitative – rather than quantitative or experimental – methodological approach. This means that instead of asking a question about cause and effect (e.g., “Does the overview effect cause astronauts to become more eco-conscious?”), this study tried to understand how astronauts themselves thought their experiences in space changed (or didn’t change) their eco-friendly attitudes or behaviors. The author analyzed the astronaut interviews using a technique called interpretive phenomenological analysis, which uses a four-step process to identify common themes. These steps are:

  1. Read and reread all interview transcripts and make notes on themes
  2. Identify common themes across all interview transcripts
  3. Organize the common themes into meta-themes (e.g., by using an existing theoretical framework)
  4. Interpret the themes

Importantly, the use of this qualitative analysis is standardized and rigorous – so while it cannot prove that experiencing the overview effect will make you more eco-conscious, it is an important contribution to understanding the psychological components of the overview effect. Additionally, it is designed to be replicated. Psychological science needs both quantitative and qualitative methods to best understand how the human mind works.

What did the author find after interviewing the astronauts?

First, the majority of the astronauts interviewed experienced an intense overview effect. They described feeling chills or having a mind-altering experience when viewing the Earth from space. Many respondents mentioned how viewing the Earth made them realize how fragile the environment was and noted how they could view the destructive impact of humans from space (e.g., deforestation).

When asked how their environmental attitudes and behaviors were impacted by the overview effect, several respondents indicated that they had high environmental concern before spaceflight, but that the overview effect strengthened these attitudes. However, only 4 of the 14 interviewed indicated that they engaged in more substantial eco-conscious behaviors after experiencing the overview effect. These behaviors included collecting rainwater for use in gardening and eating a plant-based diet.

The author concludes that the act of viewing the Earth from space can be transformative and can increase one’s eco-conscious attitudes and behaviors. In particular, the views from space can motivate behavior change from a positive place of awe and inspiration, which can counter-act some of the negative emotions, such as fear, that can dominate discussions of climate. In addition, several other studies are attempting to use virtual reality to elicit this kind of overview effect in people who are not actually in space! It is a great reminder of why we need to keep the awe-inspiring power of Earth front and center!


Image sources: Pixabay users PIRO4D and qimono; Pexels user Pixabay