Psychedelics offer a sense of expansive connectedness, just like astronauts have felt looking back to Earth from space
In 1966, on a rooftop overlooking San Francisco, the writer Stewart Brand felt that he could perceive the curvature of the Earth, an effect of the psychedelic substance he had consumed. He wondered why no one had photographed the Earth from space yet, and realised how much this might help people feel connected to each other and to their shared home. Later that day, he wrote in his journal: ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’ Next day, he ordered hundreds of posters and badges to be made, demanding the answer to his question, in a campaign that quickly went viral across the United States.
Just a couple of years later, on Christmas Eve 1968, the NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were aboard Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the Moon. They had spent most of the day photographing the Moon’s surface, when Borman turned the spaceship around, and Earth came into view. ‘
Oh my God, look at that picture over there. Here’s the Earth coming up,’ shouted Anders. Like the astronauts themselves, the world was awestruck by the first images of the whole Earth from space, which are today widely credited with triggering the birth of the modern environmental movement.
As these two examples show, momentous shifts in perspective can come from fleeting moments of epiphany such as those experienced by Brand or the crew of Apollo 8.
Astronauts who have seen the Earth from space frequently describe a profound cognitive shift. ‘The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth,’ said Lovell, part of the crew of both Apollo 8 and Apollo 13. Researchers call this kind of shift in perspective the ‘overview effect’: a breakthrough shift in perspective catalysed by the perception of the unity and interconnectedness of life on Earth, often resulting in a strong desire to protect the planet.
And as Brand’s experience underscores, something very similar can be triggered by experiences with psychedelic substances. Psychedelics can unlock a newfound appreciation of nature, a profound sense of being part of a much larger whole and of a magnificent interconnected web of life – something that has been described again and again in experience reports, research surveys, experimental studies and historical accounts of early psychedelic experiences.
Yet psychedelics were prohibited in many countries shortly after the Earthrise photograph was taken, starting in the United States with the then president Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which outlawed substances such as LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Years of fruitful research into the psychotherapeutic potential of psychedelics came to a sudden, juddering halt, leaving a tantalising question in their wake: would the ecological literacy of our species have developed differently had these tools for glimpsing the ‘overview’ been safeguarded rather than outlawed?