Why astronauts get awestruck viewing Earth from space

New York: What if you can watch the Earth — its blue-and-white marbling stark against a black interstellar backdrop — from space? The experience will sure evoke an intense awe like it happens with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s positive psychology centre are now studying the phenomenon called the “overview effect” to better understand the emotions astronauts commonly recount when they look at the Blue Marble from space.

“We watch sunsets whenever we travel to beautiful places to get a little taste of this kind of experience. These astronauts are having something more extreme,” said lead researcher David Yaden.

“By studying the more-extreme version of a general phenomenon, you can often learn more about it,” he added.

To understand the “overview effect”, Yaden and colleagues analysed excerpts from astronauts from all over the world who documented viewing the Earth from space.

Themes emerged from the quotes, ideas like unity, vastness, connectedness and perception — in general the sense of an overwhelming, life-changing moment.

The effort is to look at implications for space flight as the aeronautical community heads toward years-long missions to places like Mars and to understand how to induce a similar sensation for non-astronauts.

“We think of people who do a lot of meditation or climb mountains, people who are awe junkies, having these experiences. We don’t [often] think of these very strict scientists reporting these blissful moments,” said Yaden in a paper appeared in the journal Psychology of Consciousness.

They are now planning a follow-up experiment using virtual reality that gives participants the chance to Earth-gaze which could result in an experience similar to the “overview effect”.

“In the end, what we care about is how to induce these experiences. They help people in some ways be more adaptive, feel more connected and reframe troubles,” the authors noted.