How space travel leads to cognitive shifts in awareness

Altered states: an astronaut with the moon.
Altered states: an astronaut with the moon. Photograph: Juan Camilo Bernal/Getty Images

The two people who have paid for a private moon mission next year will undergo a psychological as well as a physical journey. There’s a fundamental shift in human perspective offered by space flight. This radical shift in viewpoint – sometimes called ‘the overview effect’ – the cognitive shift in awareness that astronauts talk about when they look at Earth from orbit. The idea of how we view ourselves in the world was established in the 1980s with Professor Richard Morris’s water maze experiment. The maze consists of a tank with submerged platforms that rats seek out to rest on. By manipulating the landmarks we can study how the rat navigates and creates internal spatial maps.

What’s much less frequently studied in rats or people is the moment when you escape from the world in which you’ve been contained, and see a familiar landmark from a radically different perspective.

Astronauts report a deep change in their sense of themselves and the world. This is something neuroscientists need to engage in – we’d better start saving now.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London


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