1114 GMT March 28, 2020
Such drastic measures may not be necessary, however. Scientists are about to welcome the first participants on an unprecedented clinical trial that aims to reproduce the intense emotional experience, known as the “Overview effect”, from the comfort of a health spa, the Guardian reported.
If the trial goes well, what led Mitchell to develop “an instant global consciousness” and a profound connection to Earth and its people could be recreated with nothing more than a flotation tank, a half ton of Epsom salts, and a waterproof virtual reality (VR) headset.
“There’s a lot of division and polarization and disconnection between people,” said Steven Pratscher, a psychologist and principal investigator on the trial at the University of Missouri.
“We’d like to see if we can recreate the Overview effect on Earth to have an impact on those issues.”
Pratscher will recruit about 100 volunteers who are willing to don the VR headset and clamber into a dark, salt-laden flotation tank at the city’s Clarity Float spa. The silence and buoyancy will mimic the sensation of floating in space, while the VR headset plays high-definition, 360 degree immersive video recorded by the Silicon Valley startup, SpaceVR.
The volunteers will be randomly assigned to have either the full flotation tank VR experience, to float without VR, or have VR while lying on a bed. Before and after their one-hour session, the participants will complete a series of questionnaires to assess whether they had any mystical experiences, felt more connected to others, or had what psychologists call an “emotional breakthrough” moment. The persistence of any effects will be assessed after one week and again a month later.
Pratscher does not expect everyone who steps into the tank wearing a VR headset to emerge having experienced the Overview effect. But the experiment will reveal what, if anything, people do experience when their senses are fooled into believing they are looking down on Earth from space.
“It may be able to elicit, to some degree, these mystical experiences, and I’m curious to see if they have persisting effects, for example on people’s values and behaviors, especially with respect to how people view the Earth and the environment, and the things they do that may impact the environment,” Pratscher said.
“We’re causing potentially irreversible impact on the Earth, so hopefully it will wake people up to see that there are more things we can do to help save the planet, protect the environment, and live in more harmony,” he added.
Not all astronauts experience the Overview effect, but those who do describe a number of factors that appear to fuel the phenomenon. On seeing the whole planet in the blackness of space, national borders melt away, and we all become, primarily, citizens of Earth. Many astronauts are struck by the thinness of the atmosphere, and the stunning beauty of the planet, and feel compelled to protect it when they return.
“For me it was an epiphany in slow motion,” said Ron Garan, a former NASA astronaut who is not involved in the trial.
“It’s a profound sense of empathy, a profound sense of community, and a willingness to forgo immediate gratification and take a more multi-generational outlook on progress.”
Garan, a former fighter pilot, flew on space shuttle Discovery in 2008 and spent two weeks working on the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The trip created a longing to go back and in 2011 he launched onboard a Soyuz rocket on a six-month mission to the space station.
“From space, the planet is a constantly changing masterpiece and the sheer beauty is absolutely breathtaking. It looks like a shining jewel and you realize that it’s home to everyone who ever lived and everyone who ever will be,” he said. “But another thing that hit me was a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet. It filled me with a sense of injustice. It infuriated me.”
On his return, Garan wrote ‘The Orbital Perspective’, a book about the call to action he felt after experiencing the Overview effect. It is about seeing the big picture, appreciating what needs to be done, and cracking on with solutions. He believes it might be possible to at least produce what he calls an “aha” moment with VR on Earth.
“You can be sat up there in orbit thinking about this contradiction and then realize you’re sitting on the answer. The answer is that humans, when they set aside their differences and work together, can do anything.
“You want people to have that shift in perspective, to think planetary. You want them to come out and solve problems in context of the real world in its entirety, to solve multi-generational problems, not slap band aids on things,” he said.