Exploring the 'Overview Effect': Transformative Therapy and VR Innovations in Psychology

From Psychology Doctoral Studies to EarthscapeVR: Nurturing a Vision and Chasing a Dream

Dr Annahita

11/4/20232 min read

The Overview Effect

The 'Overview Effect,' a term coined by space philosopher Frank White, encapsulates the extraordinary experience of viewing Earth from space. This unique perspective, as recounted by astronauts, brings a distinctive psychological impact. Their diaries and interviews consistently reveal a deeper sense of interconnectedness with life, a shift in self-perception, and a renewed sense of purpose. Sigmund Freud referred to this interconnectedness as the 'oceanic feeling,' symbolising unity with the natural world.

While only a few hundred people have encountered this, many relate to feelings of awe when witnessing natural wonders like tornadoes or the Grand Canyon. The 'Overview Effect' embodies the essence of such experiences.

Understanding the Human Mind

The human mind continuously generates an average of 90,000 - 140,000 thoughts daily. Unchecked, this leads to unproductive thought patterns and mental distress. To free ourselves from cognitive clutter, organising thoughts and breaking away from maladaptive overthinking is crucial.

Escapism, both healthy and unhealthy, is a natural response. Unhealthy escapism involves addiction, while healthier alternatives include activities like extreme sports and meditation. Here, controlled and ethical use of virtual reality can be part of therapy plans, supporting those experiencing anxiety or depression.

My Journey: Psychology Research with NASA Astronauts

In 2012, my doctoral psychology research focused on the therapeutic potential of the 'Overview Effect.' I interviewed seven retired NASA astronauts to delve into their Earth-viewing experiences and resulting psychological shifts. The study aimed to deepen our understanding, explore their emotional perspectives, and uncover differences and commonalities in their accounts.

Three key themes emerged: 1) Profound Perceptions of Earth, 2) Emotional Impact and Reflection, and 3) Post-Flight Realisations. Earth gazing fostered a strong connection to Earth, evoking emotions like awe, reverence, and gratitude, linked to overall well-being. Additionally, it revealed dimensions pertinent to therapy, including existential contemplation and expanding comfort zones.

Transitioning to Transformative Therapy

My research affirmed the possibility of translating aspects of the 'Overview Effect' into digital therapies and VR workshops to:

  • Reduce stress

  • Foster interconnectedness

  • Trigger shifts in self-perception

Practical Applications

The 'Overview Effect' emerges as a powerful experience that nurtures positive emotions and deepens our connection to nature and humanity.

Technologies, such as Virtual Reality, offer systems for targeted psychological change. VR interventions have shown effectiveness in managing pain, reducing anxiety, promoting mindfulness, and skill enhancement across conditions. We can use these technologies to recreate aspects of profound experiences, exploring their mental health benefits.

My Research and EarthscapeVR's Origin

After completing my psychology studies in 2017, I focused on refining my findings, crafting a psychological model, and developing a therapeutic approach. Recognising the 'Overview Effect's' role in ecotherapy, I co-founded 'EarthscapeVR' in 2019 with my colleague Charlie Perring.

EarthscapeVR recreates facets of the 'Overview Effect' and other nature-based experiences through VR, harnessing their benefits. Our programs combine workshops based on psychological principles with VR experiences, integrating meditation practices, natural landscapes, binaural beats, and captivating soundscapes.

Our VR interventions aim to evoke optimal arousal, reduce cognitive noise, and facilitate emotional and cognitive training. We're conducting ongoing research and planning trials in hospital settings to refine our VR-assisted therapies and programs.

Join Us on This Journey

Follow us on Instagram and visit the EarthscapeVR website for more information