The iSpace lab at SFU is already doing exciting research into this question. What is the Overview effect, you ask? Well, it is an awe-striking experience resulting in a cognitive shift that leaves people with a more united and caring world view. This phenomenon is usually experienced when people see Earth from outer space but it can also be mildly experienced in airplanes or tall buildings and seeing how small we are from that perspective. “Awe and self-transcendence are among the deepest and most powerful aspects of the human experience; it should come as no surprise that they emerge as we gaze upon our home planet and our whole world comes into view.” (Yaden, 2016)
The awe and self-transcendence tend to create a shift in identity. “When you go around the world in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing”(White, 1987, p39). In some astronauts, like Mitchell, this shift also creates a renewed sense of motivation. He states that “in other space, 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” (New Mexico Museum of Space History, 2015, bio).
Culture also changes how the Overview effect is interpreted. When asked to recall their experiences, Chinese participants were “more likely to interpret their experiences in terms of social and cultural duty”, while American participants were “more likely to offer supernatural interpretations” (Yaden, 2016).
Overall, his kind of cognitive shift could positively shape people’s perceptions of the world. Virtual Reality may be the tool in unlocking this cognitive shift with more safety and less expense.
How would the Overview effect would change society? One Eyemole suggests that it may increase environmental awareness, another said it may increase the feeling of meaninglessness. Perhaps this could be used in treating anxiety and depression. Or for others, a new source of inspiration for art and philosophy. Possibly a placebo effect may come into play and people would find meaning in their lives because of their sheer desire for it. Or maybe, as one Eyemole suggested, the Overview effect would lose its effect.
The answer to all these questions remain unknown for now, but it is because of the research at iSpace labs and the emerging field Virtual Reality research that ask then test these questions. You should check out their cool research at http://ispace.iat.sfu.ca/project/earthgazing/.
Now sit back and close your eyes and imagine this. If the Overview could be replicated in a virtual environment, how would it change you?