Overview effect(s)

When I posted about “You can’t see the forest for the trees” in a sense that we often cannot see what’s really going on, one thought or better an image immediately popped up: from a bird’s eyes perspective we would see the whole forest.

This seems also to be true on a much larger scale. Obviously ancient philosopher Socrates did know about a cure for our longing to see more as the pieces of the puzzle: “Humanity must rise above the Earth to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. For only then will we understand the world in which we live”.

In the 20th century mankind did rise above the top of the atmosphere and beyond. And the opposite of “you can’t see the forest for the tree” happened. Man in space experienced the so-called “Overview effect”, a term created 1987 by Frank White.

In February 2013 British filmmakers released a wonderful short film also titled “Overview Effect” on vimeo, which contains a wonderful encapsulation of the overview experience narrated through several interviews with astronauts and philosophers.

A short definition of the overview effect is that “a cognitive shift in awareness by some astronauts and cosmonauts, often while viewing the earth from orbit or from lunar surface” (wikipedia). It is added that “third-hand observers of these individuals may also report a noticeable difference in attitude”.

So far the overview effect is referring primarily to the experience of viewing earth from “the top of the atmosphere and beyond”. However there is more about this: Linking the overview-experience strongly to spiritual and transpersonal experience, Frank White writes in his book “Overview effect” that “a liberal number of astronauts and cosmonauts have been transformed spiritually by their flights. Traveling in space they experience an overview effect, a sense of awe, majesty and wonder, accompanied by a sense of connection with God and oneness with all humanity”.

This raises some very interesting questions: do we need to go to space to have this experience (as far as I know you have to safe up for some time and tickets are very limited)? Furthermore, if this sounds so familiar with other life-changing fundamental experiences in human history, think for example St. Augustine, are there other overview-effects, which can be experienced also on Earth? It is interesting that the feeling of “all-oneness” is a very old concept. We know this from many religions and psychologist Siegmund Freud detected a so-called “Oceanic feeling”. It is also iremarkable that the experience was anticipated in Soviet Science-fiction during the Fifties and Sixties in novels by Martynow and the Strugaztki-brothers (you can find information about this in a German book “Die Spur des Sputnik) long before this aspect of the overview-effect was mentioned by real astronauts.

Certainly the experience of seeing earth from outside is unique, and it is a great message the astronauts brought back from space. They want to teach us to care better about our “spaceship earth” since part of the experience is also about the fragility of earth and that this planet is in danger.

However there seem to be two problems lasting with the overview-effect: First of all why can’t we experience that overview effect with all the modern hi-tech photography done in space now for example in a 3D movie theatre by ourselves? It seems that there is much more going on as we can see at first sight. Like any experience of the otherworld it can not be completely recorded.

And another well-known fundamental problem occurs: the space-travellers can’t really share their experience. This is the same old problem as with shamanic experience and all people who had any kind of transpersonal experience. On one side the experience is too complex to be expressed easily, and on the other side they are not the same any more, they are one step ahead like a computer when he received a very big update. Think of prophets or people who had life-changing experiences: the literature is full of odd people, people who were not the same any longer and telling sometimes stories which to  us simply appear weird. And their experiences doesn’t always make sense to the rest of the world. Therefore the experience is often transformed into something which we already know.

It seems not so easy to escape from  the forest “that you can’t see for the trees”. At least for those people who can’t rise above the earth to the top of the atmosphere and beyond. Only if we find new ways of communicating these (transpersonal) experience we will all see more of the pieces of the puzzle.





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