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Sun rising behind the Earth, as seen from space

Bringing the Overview Effect to the Masses, via Virtual Reality

On February 5th, 1971, Edgar Mitchell became the sixth person to walk on the lunar surface. While this experience in itself would no doubt be transformative, on the journey home from the Moon Mitchell’s view of the heavens delivered a truly spiritual epiphany – that humanity is all one:

As we were rotating I saw the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens. The magnificence of all of this – what this triggered, in the ancient Sanskrit, is called c. It means that you see things with your senses the way they are, but you experience them viscerally and internally as a unity and a one-ness, accompanied by ecstasy.

All matter in our universe is created in star systems. And so the matter in my body, and the matter in the spacecraft, and the matter in my partner’s bodies, was the product of stars. We are star-dust, and we’re all one in that sense.

The experience affected Mitchell so much that he went on to create the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) as a research centre that could deliver “a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming”.

Edgar Mitchell’s epiphany was far from an isolated event – the feeling of samadhi that he experienced is actually so common among astronauts that it has its own name: the Overview Effect. As author Frank White first described it in 1987, the Overview Effect…

…is an experience that transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

Sounds like something everyone on the planet could do with, don’t you think? Jason Silva notes as much in one of his ‘Shots of Awe’:

So it seems at the moment that humanity is suffering a kind of collective soul sickness. There is a global epidemic of existential distress. The numbers don’t lie – anxiety and depression is being diagnosed at levels we’ve never seen before. The United Nations in fact has said that 800,000 people a year now are committing suicide across the globe…perhaps our personal narratives, our collective cultural operating system, our cultural narratives about who and what we are have hit their limit. They are no longer serving us.

Perhaps what we need is a cognitive reframing.

Something really funny happens to astronauts when they go into orbit – these are secular materialistic engineers…all of a sudden they see the Earth as a single solitary marble floating in the cosmos. They see everything they’ve ever known as just one thing. They see themselves and their planet as one and this psychic transformation is known as the astronaut overview effect.

Apparently such a dramatic change in perspective, such a dramatic recontextualization of what we are, changes us – and this ontological
awareness gets rid of the feeling of meaninglessness, and all of a sudden informs our whole phenomenological worldview with this idea that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

So how do we give more of us this kind of experience?

The problem: very few people become astronauts – so how do you take the other 7+ billion people grounded here on Earth and transform their view of humanity and the planet?

One answer to Silva’s question perhaps might be the use of psychedelics to induce a sense of expansive connectedness. But another, perhaps more palatable solution for conservative cultures might be – fittingly – provided by the organization that Edgar Mitchell founded.

In a recent blog post on the occasion of Edgar Mitchell’s birthday, the folk at IONS revealed that they are working to bring the Overview Effect to “anyone with an internet connection”, via VR:

The Edgar Mitchell Virtual Reality Overview Effect experience is currently in production. We are proud to be working with Emmy-award winning and Oscar- nominated producer and director Bristol Baughan, two-time Academy Award winner and IONS Scientist Loren Carpenter, and composer and former NASA Fellow Robert Alexander and the amazing VR/AR team at ImmersiveVREducation (who created the award-winning virtual reality experiences of Apollo 11 and Titanic).

Executive produced by Cassandra Vieten, Claudia Welss, Marilyn Clements, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, this 5-7 minute experience puts you in Edgar’s seat, viewing a 360-degree panorama of the stars, the sun, the moon, and the Earth. With Ed’s narration, gathered from archival footage, you’ll journey in orbit and have the opportunity to reflect from that vantage point upon the foundational questions – Who are we? How are we connected? The goal is to induce awe, wonder, a sense of interconnection, and the Overview Effect that so many astronauts report has inspired them to live a life of service to others and our world.

Our goal is that every school child, elders otherwise home bound, and anyone who learns about the moon landing actually gets to experience an echo of what it must be like to see our world from space.

As Edgar Mitchell explained himself, by experiencing the view of Earth from space “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.”

Let’s hope the VR Overview Effect can induce similar experiences for us here on Earth.

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