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A Cognitive Shift: The Overview Effect

Released on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17’s iconic Blue Marble photograph, Overview is a short film that examines the peculiar cognitive shift experienced by many who have been to space. The 15-minute piece draws upon insights from astronauts, philosophers, and authors to explore how perspective can drastically change the way people think about their relationship with the world. Tightly paced and expertly scored by the Human Suits, I found Overview to be an accessible and thought-provoking documentary that conveys the necessity of considering the big picture if we are to forge a sustainable future.

The Blue Marble from Space

Click to watch Overview.

Awestruck by the world

Chief amongst the highlights of Overview are the time-lapse footage of Earth from space. According to the filmmakers, the footage was taken by astronauts on the International Space Station simply with Nikon D3 cameras with minor alterations.

The results are breathtaking. They depict a planet illuminated by cities, thunderstorms, and auroras. As I watch this phantasmagoric display of changing hues and dynamic patterns, the arbitrary boundaries I employ to organize my small, daily reality fray away, being wholly inadequate to describe the scenes before me. Words fail as the world turns, shifts, changes. I can see beauty and immensity, but there is more I cannot describe, and my normal tools of perception are rendered useless. Defenceless and vulnerable when faced with the ineffable, all I have left to me is a deep feeling that sends shivers through my core. I recognize it as awe, in its full and undiluted splendour.

Philosopher David Loy comments on the importance of this sense of awe:

“To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself, to transcend the sense of separation, so it’s not just they (the astronauts) were experiencing something other than them, but that they were at some very deep level integrating, realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”

Edgar Mitchell, one of the Apollo astronauts interviewed in the film, tries to relate his own experience to the phenomenon of Savikalpa Samadhi, which he describes as when “you see things as you see them, emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and (with) a total sense of unity and oneness.”

Aurora from Space - Overview Effect

Aurora lights from space.

This sense of genuine awe is the wellspring of wonder. Experiencing it reminds us that there is a vast world beyond our own and in so doing, and provides us with the precious gift of perspective.


  • When have you experienced moments of awe? Can you describe how you felt? 

The Gift of Perspective

“One of the astronauts said, when we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon, we weren’t thinking of looking back at the Earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may well have been the most important reason we went.”

– David Loy

During the space race in the 1960’s, massive amounts of energy and effort were poured into putting a man on the moon. Humanity’s gaze was trained outwards towards our closest celestial neighbour and beyond to the planets and the stars. But one of the greatest unintended consequences of space exploration is that it grants us the distance to look back and reflect.

The effect vantage has on our minds is profound. We can easily traverse the surface of the world and remain unchanged. But stand on the top of a hill looking out, and things begin to look different. We begin to notice patterns on the landscape that were previously invisible. We grow silent and reflective.  We find ourselves much more ready to think on grander scales and longer terms. Our sphere of care and concern expand beyond the immediate, for vantage has the uncanny ability to disrupt small-mindedness. Afforded a different view, our minds gauge the world a little differently.

From space, this cognitive shift, this Overview Effect, is taken to another order of magnitude. The act of separation, of critical distancing, helped astronauts in the film see the world entire, as something different and whole. For the first time, they understand what it is to be truly separate from the Earth, the only home they have ever known. They intuitively grasp the significance of the many deep yet tenuous connections humanity has to the world. As humility follows awe (as it inevitably does), they become more open to the possibility of a worldview where human concerns are understood within context with the rest of the planet’s processes. Mitchell describes how the Overview Effect has altered the way he viewed daily issues in a deeply amusing quote:

“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. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

– Edgar Mitchell, goodreads quote


  • Have you ever experienced a cognitive shift? What triggered it? 

The Blue Marble Paradox

Deforestation from Space - Overview Effect

Deforestation seen from space.

Overview touches on the contradictory notions I personally have regarding the Earth. On one hand, I see the planet we live on as an incredibly dynamic, resilient, and powerful system. Its hydrologic, geologic, and meteorological cycles move unimaginable volumes of earth, water, and air. The exuberance and tenacity life expresses never ceases to astound me, grabbing purchase in the harshest lands, the deepest abyss.

Yet Overview also highlights its fragility. An unbelievably thin of skin of gas is all that separates all life from the void of space. It barely registers as a speck in the cosmic perspective. In the film, astronaut Ron Garan has come to view the Earth as “an oasis in infinity.” Viewed from space, scars left by deforestation, erosion, and development become stark reminders that humanity is now capable of drastically altering the only home we have ever known. Whether we continue to undermine the life-support systems of this sanctuary or we act to sustain, restore, and augment them for the flourishing of life now rests firmly with us.

The Big Picture, A New Story

“People sense that there’s something wrong, but they’re still struggling to go back and find out what the real roots of the problem are, and I think what we need to come to is a realization that it’s not just fixing an economic or political system, but is a basic worldview, a basic understanding of who we are that’s at stake.”

– David Loy

Popular culture is increasingly saturated with post-apocalyptic scenarios of collapse and ruin. This is not surprising, as our obsession with zombies and survivalism are logical extrapolations based on the unchecked greed, corrosive competition, and small-minded hyperindividualism we see in our daily lives. We see daily examples where rational self-interest is used to justify wholesale destruction of community and environment, where short-term profit override considerations for long-term consequences, where isolation seize our hearts despite being surrounded by more people than any time in history. Many of us intuitively sense that things cannot continue as the status quo, but we are unable or unwilling to see another way of being.

Loy believes that the roots of our collective ecological and existential crisis lie deeper than broken economic policies or corrupt political systems. He believes that they are caused by a central story we tell and enact, a grand narrative that has each of us seeing ourselves as separate from one another and from the world. It is this way of relating to the world that is causing intractable environmental, social, and personal problems. Without another story to enact, we are resigned to a future of increasing decline, despair, and isolation.

Overview asks me to consider new stories, narratives that acknowledge and accept the realities of interdependence and unity on the planet. These stories assert that actions and intentions shape and are in turn shaped by others. These are stories that value cooperation over competition, coexistence instead of dominance, relationships over objects, and long-term considerations over short-term impulses. These stories, told by a diverse group of storytellers from all walks of life, are crucial for a sustainable and resilient future.


“This is my argument for “environmentalism.” This is my argument for sustainability. This is my argument against profits and for people, against “quick” and for “right,” against selfishness and for thinking of the future. This perspective shift is perhaps what will one day be the difference for Earth and all life as we know it. Big stuff. Hard to wrap the head around, but this does it better than anything I have yet seen.”

– Kickstarter commenter M. Keegan Uhl

Overview invites me to step back and consider a different way of relating to the world. Through its exploration of the Overview Effect, the film highlights the need for a drastic shift in mindset in order to forge a more sustainable future. Surprisingly, it is able to convey this difficult truth in a hopeful and optimistic fashion. It shows that fundamental change is possible because we are shown people who have already gone through this most difficult of transformation in personal worldview. I’ll leave off this week with the trailer for upcoming full-length companion piece to Overview titled Continuum (now successfully kickstarted and due out in 2014).

Next Up: More radical cognitive shifts.

Related Ekostories:

Images from Overview Effect © 2012 Planetary Collective. All rights reserved.


  1. bonsology says

    Reblogged this on Bonsology and commented:
    I have no words. People must understand this. “We are part of an unfolding evolution process that includes all beings and is a hundred billion galaxies wide. “

  2. Karen Wan says

    Beautifully written post! It was good for me to read this today! Karen

  3. Karen Wan says

    Reblogged this on Sustaining Stories Coaching and Retreats and commented:
    The cognitive shift of the overview effect, which Oscar writes about here so eloquently in this post from Ekostories, is probably the most important transformation that we need to make in this age of humanity. Hope you like this post as much as I did. Karen

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  5. Such a wonderful perspective for research. I’ve been studying psychology for a few years now, so this is absolutely mind-blowing to me. What a great reminder at how enlightened we can all become if we just take a step (albeit a giant one) back.

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  7. Thanks for your thoughts on the Overview Effect, Isaac. It is very important that we get this message from the universe out to everyone on Earth.

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Frank. I was quite impressed at both the presentation and the story presented in the documentary, and thought it deserved some attention.

      (In case people don’t know, Frank is the one who originally coined the term and concept of the Overview Effect.)

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  9. Thank you for posting about these two cinematic ventures – it’s always heartening and encouraging to find media being used not just to bolster consumption and entertainment-as-escape but to convey meanings that assist in opening people to awakening, compassion and experiences of awe. Some great blurbs in both pieces, some deep concepts, and beautiful footage that even from down here on planet Earth and via computer, reminded me of our home’s indescribable beauty and aliveness.

    • The director, Guy Reid, stated at the launch of Overview that he wanted to utilize the medium of film as a non-invasive and non-prescriptive way to help people recognize a more biocentric perspective. All documentaries have a message, but I think it’s in how they express the message that determines their success. Overview seems to have done a good job in melding those deep concepts you spoke of with beautiful footage and music to create an appealing end product.

  10. Our atmosphere is just a skinny bubble of air clinging to a pebble. It’s interesting how our imagining of what is endless comes from something truly finite.

    • I think another effective metaphor for visualizing the earth is to compare the skin of an apple to the atmosphere that keeps us alive. Pretty mind-boggling!

      And yes, it’s hard to step outside our own experiences, even with our faculties of imagination. That’s why expanding the mind’s horizons is so important.

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  12. War says

    Anything that makes us more unified and holistic in our perspectives is awesome! Great blog you have here!

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