Exploring the Psychology of Why Astronauts Feel Awe

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain / NASA // Public Domain

For obvious reasons, scientists are very concerned about the effects of space travel on the human body. Between the radiation, the pressure, and the lack of gravity, astronauts can expect to undergo some pretty weird physical changes once they leave Earth. But many astronauts also report experiencing spiritual and emotional awakenings in space, and scientists have begun to take notice. Researchers investigate these trends in a recent issue of Psychology of Consciousness.

Natural phenomena like the northern lights, meteor showers, and full moons have inspired wonder and awe in humans for about as long as we’ve been human. It’s no surprise, really, that those effects are magnified for people looking back at the Earth from space. This spiritual awakening is so common that it has its own name: the overview effect.

"Space is so fascinating because it's a highly scientific, highly secular environment, so it doesn't have these connotations," lead author David Yaden said in a press statement. "We think of people who do a lot of meditation or climb mountains, people who are awe junkies, having these experiences. We don't [often] think of these very strict scientists reporting these blissful moments."

But they do.

“[You] suddenly get the feeling that, 'Hey, this is just one small planet which is lost in the middle of space,'” reported one astronaut participant in a study at the University of Central Florida. “[You get a] very important feeling about the fact that we’re just drifting through an immense universe … [Y]ou become a little more conscious about the fact that we shouldn’t be doing silly things on Earth like fighting and killing each other.” 

Yaden and his colleagues wanted to understand the emotional roots of the overview effect. They compiled statements from astronauts all over the world and analyzed them, looking for commonalities. They found that the space travelers’ experiences were remarkably consistent, with recurrent themes of unity, connectedness, tranquility, vastness, perspective, and becoming completely overwhelmed with awe and wonder.

"We watch sunsets whenever we travel to beautiful places to get a little taste of this kind of experience. These astronauts are having something more extreme," Yaden said.

The researchers hope that their work, like the experiments on astronauts’ bodies, will help space programs design and prepare future missions. The next era of spaceflight is going to involve some very long trips, which could really benefit from an understanding of astronaut psychology.

The paper's authors also believe their work may lead to a better quality of life for people down on the ground. A follow-up study will include virtual-reality headsets to give Earthbound study participants a little taste of what it’s like to orbit the Earth. "In the end, what we care about is how to induce these experiences," researcher Johannes Eichstaedt said. "They help people in some ways be more adaptive, feel more connected, reframe troubles.”