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The Human Brain in Space: Euphoria and the “Overview Effect” Experienced by Astronauts

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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Could be the best example yet of being “spaced out”? When in space, astronauts have repeatedly reported inexplicable euphoria, a “cosmic connection” or an increased sensitivity to their place in the Universe. The experience sounds like the ultimate high, or the ultimate enlightening; it would appear that without trying, astronauts are able to attain a similar mental state as meditating Buddhist monks. So what is happening when the human body is in space? Does zero-gravity create new connections in the brain? Or is it a natural human response to the vastness of space and realizing just how small we are in comparison? What ever the reason, it looks like even when astronauts are back on solid ground, they have changed profoundly…

On March 6th, 1969, Rusty Schweikart experienced a feeling that the whole universe was profoundly connected. At the time, he was on a postponed space walk outside his Apollo 9 Lunar Module, carrying out tests for the forthcoming Moon landings. Already having suffered from space sickness (hence delaying the EVA) he felt a euphoric sensation:

“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change… it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.” – Russell “Rusty” Schweikart.

Two years later, Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell (joint record holder with Alan Shepard for longest ever Moon walk of 9 hours and 17 minutes) reported experiencing an “Overview Effect”. He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.

Schweikart and Mitchell’s experiences are not isolated anomalies, many other astronauts since the 1970’s have reported this Overview Effect. Andy Newberg, a neuroscientist/physician with experience in space medicine, hopes to find out whether this is an actual psychological phenomenon. Perhaps there is a medical reason for an actual change in an astronaut’s brain function when in space. What’s more, he’s noticed a psychological change in the men and women that have come back from space:

You can often tell when you’re with someone who has flown in space, its palpable.” – Andy Newberg

Newberg has scanned many brains to try to understand how humans reach this euphoric state on Earth. The religious communities, transcendental mediators and others around the world are able to experience similar states and have been the focus of interest to neuroscientists. In some cases, the meditation leads some people to view the whole cosmos as an interconnected quantum web, where consciousness is not separate, but a part of the Universe. Now Newberg hopes to monitor the brain of one of the first space tourists so a better grasp of the brain function of a human in zero-G can be understood.

Edgar Mitchell has said that his personal event has changed his life, revealing a Universe that had remained hidden until he experienced the Overview Effect on that Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Whether this effect is a physical change in the brain, or a deeper, yet to be discovered event, Newberg hopes to find some answers.

Source: The Daily Galaxy


26 Responses

  1. Ian O'Neill says:

    To David:
    Absolutely. I think the investigators of this phenomenon are keeping an open mind as to what could be behind this phenomenon – running physiological studies will help to find the physical effects of “enlightenment”. I’d be very interested to read about studies carried out on people in deep meditation here on Earth to see if the spiritual/psychological/medical factors corrolate.

    Cheers, Ian 🙂

  2. Nat says:

    I would be extremely surprised if this physiologically had anything to do with being in a microgravity environment. Seeing the Earth from outside of itself seems like a humbling enough experience to trigger something like this, to me at least. It (quite literally) puts all of the collective human effort into perspective.

  3. David says:

    Is it possible that there could be something transcendental, spiritual, or otherwise beyond the scope of our measurements here? Is this something to be merely relegated to physiological study? One gift of science is to humble us of our own abilities to measure and provoke us into thinking about the possibilities that lie beyond our limitations…

  4. Emission Nebula says:

    I bet its a combination of both being in zero gravity for so long, and even bigger being able to see, and feel the universe around you from a much better perspective.

    No matter what though, I want to experience this for myself. Has to be awesome.

  5. Astrofiend says:

    I would say that it has a lot to do with the sheer intensity of the situation that the astronauts find themselves in. Not intensity as in stress, but just a profoundly moving and altogether different experience, combined with the spiritual/quasi-religious aspects that such an experience must entail.

    Buddhist texts often say that to become ‘enlightened’, the brain needs to be ‘shocked’ out of its current state of operation and numbness, to in-a-sense wake up out of pre-conceived notions and though patterns. Hence, they often use koans (tripped out questions or statements such as the famous ‘does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if nobody is there to hear it?’) designed to shock the mind into awareness.

    There can be little doubt that such states of awareness exist, not least because hundreds of millions of people around the world swear by it and base their entire religion on it, but also because scientific studies have also shown definitive evidence of trance-like and altered mind states in monks and those who have meditated for a significant amount of time.

    So my point is, I can’t really think of anything that may be more effective at shocking the mind out of its stupor and waking it up to the realities of the vast beauty and mystery of the universe than a trip out in space. Maybe they’re onto something…

    I also wouldn’t be altogether surprised if it was similar in some ways to the feelings that arise in people who use psychoactive drugs such as LSD or MDMA. Many users often link the feelings produced by these with meditative or transcendent states. Maybe the underlying chemical mechanisms are similar!

  6. Kevin White says:

    Very interesting!

    Go to Erowid.org and read some of the experience reports listed for Salvia and DXM (among others). There’s talk of a feeling of unfathomable vastness, of floating in an endless deep blackness, of feeling simultaneously ecstatically alone and integrated with everything.

    I mention Salvia and DXM, specifically, for two reasons — 1. I’ve used them, so I tend to concentrate on them, and 2. they’re both DISSOCIATIVE drugs. I can’t think of a more dissociative feeling/environment than being above, literally EVERYTHING. Seeing an altered reality for the first time. Space travel, even this far into the game, even orbital travel, is BIZARRE and still nearly unprecedented in the history of both organic life and intelligent and self-aware higher animals.

    I almost think what they’re experiencing is simply the PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION of the feeling some psychedelic/dissociative drug experimenters experience. Space travel is not a “poor substitute” for a dissociative trip, it’s the other way around! But the similarities are there, even down to some specifics. I recall a feeling of floating weightless on an infinite, dark, unbelievably empty sea while on DXM once…

  7. DavidRavenMoon says:

    “In some cases, the meditation leads some people to view the whole cosmos as an interconnected quantum web, where consciousness is not separate, but a part of the Universe.”

    Well it obviously is. Read up on the research by Rupert Sheldrake for some interesting ideas.

  8. Joeru says:

    To study such an effect seems truly daunting. Understanding the “interconnectedness of everything” by definition would have to include all possible fields of study from the physical to the psychological and then somehow ascertain their combined effects.

    When we start using physics to explain our mental states, we will be on the right track. Until then, “may the Force be with you”.

  9. Molecular says:

    This feeling MUST be very similar to what one might experience if they were suddenly drawn into another dimension, like fish being lifted out of water.

    I mean, to be confined to Earth all of your life, then suddenly, you’re drifting around space, looking at the very place from which life was given to you, has got to be a mind altering experience.

    I wouldn’t doubt that while one is in space, they are not somehow merging with unseen forces, still yet to be detected by any of our scientific instruments. 🙂

  10. alphonso richardson says:

    Could it be that, in space, without the distractions of ordinary life, isolated and only the crew to directly interact with, as opposed to friends/neighbours etc, the lack of any ‘normal’ everyday cues (day/night cycle, bird/animal /traffic noise/ horizon, etc), you’re either more relaxed or the brain is forced to stimulate itself?
    There could also be a physiological component, as well as the personal/social side (being aware of the physical relationship between Earth & spaceship/self)?

    Just a thought.

  11. joe says:

    meditation is definitely the way to go

  12. Mags says:

    hmmmmm …It’s gravity that holds us to the earth physically, maybe gravity has the same effect on the mind and confines our synapses in the brain.

  13. Steven says:

    I think getting high changes one’s perception. I remember one time looking at a plate of slightly burnt cookies and thinking they weren’t worth eating. Some friends and I got high, came back, and we ate them all. Getting high really changes things.

  14. KC Wong says:

    Meditation is mind control over your brain reaction, whereas drugs control your brain and disturb your reaction. Try this, just sit quetly inside a room, without moving any parts of body for a while. Then go to a beach where you can look far beyond, or a big empty space, do the same meditation. You will feel the different.
    Thank you

  15. Arden says:

    The Bible says God loves a broken and contrite spirit. For many of these over acheivers in space; this is the first time they realize that compared to the vastness around them they are very small. However the very fact that they are there where few have ever been awakens their spirit and they now see their connection on a spiritual plain rather than only on an intellectual or physical. Save your selfs time guys… the answers are all ready in the Bible.

  16. Jason Leary says:

    The euphoria/sense of the numinous that the astronauts experience …could well indeed be a combination of the possible new syaptic connections in the brain set into motion by entering a rather weightless enviroment as in outer space AND also seeing such enormous vistas of unclutterred space . It could be a combination of both —as well as perhaps other factors .

    It is indeed good that many of the astronauts have had that experience .

    Though Augustine of Hippo was a very overrated theologian and on many points of doctrine he was quite murky, he did ,nevertheless, have a fascinating insight when (apparently in one of his writings…at least the quote has been attributed to him) he wrote that

    a journey by ship was like a baptism .

    With that sort of conception in mind , could it be that if a journey on the ocean with s sailing ship is like a baptism , might a journey through outer space by spaceship be even more like a baptism —in terms of it being like a numinous turning point event ?

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  18. Beep says:

    Consciousness IS a part of the universe and not separated. Everything is.

  19. robbb says:

    I definitely believe in the value of meditation. And as a means of transcending our usual thoughts. Its obviously less intense than a spacewalk but I had a profound experience while parasailing. As they were slowly winding me out and up you literally hear the world below slip away. All the ordinary sounds fade out and you’re left with a beautiful stillness that completely alters your perspective. You experience the curve of the horizon and the beauty of the world belie from an almost omniscient view.

    I believe that intelligence is inherent in the universe. In some sense we are all information – long streams of zeroes and ones can account for all matter. I imagine the universe running on an unfathomably large computer that you might call god. And sometimes I think of life as a DVD that already has a beginning and end and the only way to experience it as separate moments is to “play it” from end to end.

  20. Chuck Lam says:

    Hmm . . . I can imagine a multi-generation trip to Alpha C where the space vehicle occupants experience this “overview effect” and blow the hatch open to get closer to the creator.

  21. Cheryl Chambers says:

    My brother recently sent his article to me as a possible explaination for a couple of experiences I had recounted to him. Although these “happenings” were wonderful, enlightening and truly rapturous, I have been bothered for years by the fact that they cannot be explained or repeated at will and that no one I have asked has had anything like it happen to them. Unlike the astronauts in your article, my feet were planted firmly on the ground both times, and I am not a student or devotee of medication. nor do I drink or take drugs that would cause me to hallucinate. Also, you should understand that I am not a religious person and find no answers in the Bible or any other religious text. However, both times I was alone and in a serene environment.
    It has been difficult for me to find the perfect words to describe what actually happened to me, but let me try: The first time “it” happened, I was sitting alone on a huge boulder looking out over a beautiful mountain vista just thinking how pretty it was. I wasn’t ruminating on the deep meaning of life or much of anything except the beauty and quiet of the moment. Suddenly, I had a complete and detailed understanding of the universe and it’s complex and perfect structure. I could see and “know” things I had no business kinowing, like how the magnetic poles worked (I could actually see them), the tilt of the earth, the “food chain” , the vastness of the universe and my place in it. It had nothing to do with “God” , it was strictly an all-knowing, perfect understanding of the interconnectedness of everything. It didn’t last long, but it did leave me feeling a peace I had never felt before….it was the serenity of knowing that everything was “right”. The second experience was similar in that I was alone and quiet and looking at the full moon and a sky as full of stars as I’ve ever seen it. I had been studying astronomy, the distance between planets, etc. and suddenly, I could see the moon and planets as if I were looking at them in 3D or something. It was a perfect understanding of the orbits, the sizes, gravity, everything working perfectly together and again, not something I felt I really “knew”, but now understood with absolute clarity. I thing the term “absolute clarity” is the best description of what happened both times.
    I know this probably sounds a little nuts, and that is why I have not told many people what happened. I can’t explain it very well and that might be one reason others can;t understand, but it happened, it was weird and wonderful, and I want it back. I have tried, but it’s not something I can meditate back into my life. I have wondered if somehow all the synapses of my brain fired at once and I momentarly recalled everything I’d ever read or studied and put it all into logical order. I not sure that explains the rature I felt at knowing all was in it’s “place”, but it does change one’s life and attitudes about one’s place in time and space.
    I would be interested to know if anyone else has experiened something like this.

  22. Jerry says:

    It’s probably that astronauts are outside the pollution of negativity. Notice the difference in feeling by being out in the boonies with nobody around, and being in a depressing kind of neighborhood. Better “vibes” out there.

  23. NNM says:

    They have to go threw intensive physical preparations before going into space. Years of study. Years of work. Years of preparations to fulfill this dream. Of course most of them are gonna have be living the greatest moment of their life, the result of huge amounts of work and study,…
    So, it’s only natural that they will describe and live the experience as if it was something out of this world.
    I don’t think it’s anything worth investigation more than “yea, wow what an amazing experience”. And CERTAINLY NOT anything paranormal, religious, or “enlightening”. Let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground and be rational about it…

  24. Jon Boats Forever says:

    From our first educational experiences, we are taught to perceive the universe fragmentarily, as if it were puzzle pieces, from one disciplinary view at a time (Math, English, Science, Religion). It’s very hard for an individual to defeat this viewpoint once learned. We’re living in the age of experts, of analysts who know how to break everything down into components but have trouble putting it back together. (It was never really apart!) Yet the universe is all one massive and spatial organism. Difficult to see that forest if you’re a tree expert. The oneness “reality” we suddenly become aware of is so large and obvious to primitive peoples. Suddenly we see what’s always been there as if it were “new” and barely know how to describe it or the experience of finding it.

    Synthesists are a rare breed – who teaches them? How ironic that most of us learn how to view the obvious by “accident”.

  25. C.R. Copeland says:

    I think this could be the first step toward science and religion co-existing.

    And, it’s about time.

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