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

The integration of spirituality and science have been taught by scholars of many faiths for years (mi2g.com)
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

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chuck Lam May 29, 2008, 3:23 PM

    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.

  • Cheryl Chambers June 25, 2008, 8:02 PM

    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.

  • Jerry July 27, 2008, 3:28 AM

    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.

  • NNM July 28, 2008, 1:38 AM

    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…

  • Jon Boats Forever August 29, 2008, 12:32 PM

    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”.

  • C.R. Copeland September 17, 2008, 1:49 PM

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

    And, it’s about time.

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