Apollo 14 command module exhibit, Apollo Saturn V Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center

The Change-Making Power of Awe

This article on the Overview Effect and its power to inspire a new level of social change was published in the Changemakers issue of Light On Light Magazine in October 2019

Claudia Welss is Chairman of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell

The Change-Making Power of Awe

"If somebody had said before the flight, 'Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?' I would have said, 'No, no way.' Yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried."  -Alan Shepard, Astronaut on Apollo 14 in February 1971

In the upcoming drama/sci-fi feature film Lucy In the Sky, Natalie Portman plays an astronaut (loosely based on astronaut Lisa Nowak) struggling to readjust to life on Earth after experiencing the vastness of space. It’s well known that seeing Earth from space has a profound effect on the human psyche.  Less well known is that this effect has a name — the Overview Effect — and that it may provide a clue to the important role of awe in changing our world.

The majority of astronauts (to date, almost 500, or two-thirds) have reported experiencing what author Frank White termed “The Overview Effect” (OE), a phenomenon that signifies the highly predictable outcome of astronauts needing to develop radically new philosophical points of view to accommodate the radically new physical perspective of seeing Earth from space.  Unlike Lucy, some astronauts appear able to integrate the experience into their existing lives and worldviews with relative ease. Others report coming home needing to readjust to life in new, “deeply religious" or mystical states, with a heightened empathy that comes from a sudden sense of deep interconnectedness.  For these astronauts, the result can be truly life-altering.

Increased attention is being paid to this phenomenon because of its power to transform.  Imagine knowing Earth not from the pedestrian perspective of human concerns, but as a unified and fragile presence, with a paper-thin atmosphere protecting all her inhabitants from the harshness of space. Concepts like Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth” — where rather than passengers, we’re all crew — become visceral realities instead of abstract ideas. But it's the accompanying cocktail of overwhelming emotion created by feelings of wonder, reverence, humility and oneness that appears responsible for astronauts being prompted into sudden, unexpected moments of self-transcendence (the expansion of one’s sense of identity and purpose) through an awe experience.

Such was the case with Dr. Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 lunar module pilot and 6th man to walk on the moon. Gazing at Earth from space, Dr. Mitchell had what he described as "an explosion of awareness and a profound sense of interconnectedness accompanied by ecstasy... an epiphany." This sense of oneness with all of life expanded his view not just of our planet, but of himself, humanity and humanity’s potential for determining its future. He saw that it was critical to our collective survival that we change the stories we tell ourselves about the limits of our capabilities as human beings. In fact, he believed his direct experience of unity foreshadowed a new wave of evolution in human consciousness, and this belief changed the course of his life.

Dr. Mitchell noted, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” 

So on his return, Dr. Mitchell set out to understand his experience by applying the same scientific rigor that was being used by NASA to study outer space to the study of inner space, or human consciousness. In 1973, he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) whose mission in the 21st century is to illuminate the interconnected nature of reality through scientific exploration and personal discovery, empowering a more compassionate, thriving world. 

Today, this mission translates into two major initiatives. IONSx is a five-year multidisciplinary program to understand the relationship between mind and matter in an effort to advance the current scientific paradigm beyond its dominant materialistic stance. The IONS Discovery Lab (IDL), hosted online and at Earthrise (our 200-acre Northern California campus named after that famous first image of Earth from space), aims to be the largest study ever done on unlocking the mechanisms of wellness, personal transformation and extended human capacities that transcend our current understanding of space and time. Perhaps someday we may even be able to measure markers of transformation in astronauts as they encounter the Overview Effect in space.

For those of us close to the Institute, it’s sobering to realize that if Edgar had looked out of the lunar module and simply seen what he expected to see — his planet of origin, the moon, and tons of data — rather than having a direct experience of Earth as part of a whole living system that included himself and the entire cosmos, IONS wouldn’t be here. This feels related to a T.S. Eliot quote I used with corporations when I worked at UC Berkeley’s business school: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  How does awe cut through the increasing challenge of so much data, and an abundance of untapped wisdom?

“The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it. It isn’t important which sea or lake you observe. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.”

-Soviet Cosmonaut and first human in space Yuri Gagarin  

Virtual reality pioneer David Beaver has said that a mass experience of the OE caused by space travel will “eventually be seen as a major driver of one of the greatest shifts in world awareness in the modern world, equivalent to or greater than the Copernican Revolution." Experiences of awe that lead to an expanded self-awareness can "forever alter the life we think we’re living and world we think we’re in."  What if we found more ways to invoke the transformational power of awe, right here, where we stand, in whatever field we’re working for change?  What new worlds of inspiration would open to us then?

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available... a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”  -Astronomer Fred Hoyle, 1948 

The Change-Making Power of Awe

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available... a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” -Astronomer Fred Hoyle, 1948