About Overview Effect, Bateson levels and learning for the future

As a child, one of my dreams was to go into space. I imagined myself inside a space capsule watching the Earth slowly recede through the porthole and the Moon and planets gradually become more visible. Reading 'Lucky Star and the Moons of Jupiter' helped to make this dream even more detailed. My dream has now become more and more realisable, the first 'tourist' trips into space are beginning (the appropriateness and popularity of these trips with respect to CO2 production could be debated) and for some time now, articles on the so-called 'Overview Effect' have been increasingly coming to my attention. What does Overview Effect mean? The name was invented by Frank White, who first used it in 1987, in his book entitled 'The Overview Effect'.

It is a collection of experiences described by astronauts who went into space, and who described themselves, not so much about the engineering part of their journey, but about the emotions they went through. The astronauts who have travelled after the release of the book were thus able to benefit from a concept to describe the strong and confusing emotions they felt during their journey, particularly when looking at planet Earth from a unique perspective.

A very special point of view, which provokes an experience that we can define as transcendent (a very tangible 'going beyond'), a deep and lasting inner movement as described by the astronauts who experienced it: a mixture of compassion, tenderness, vulnerability, awareness of belonging to a whole.

An unconditional and universal love felt for the Earth, seeing it so distant and fragile, which makes it possible to interpret oneself and the world through this lens after this type of experience. Embedded in the Overview Effect is the profound feeling of belonging, the end of separation from the Earth, the awareness of being producers of the contexts in which we live that Bateson talks about in 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind'.

If I mention it in this post, it is because the photographs that accompany the description of the Overview Effect are a first "madeleine" that reminds me of my childhood dreams; the second "madeleine" for me is the connection I made between the Overview Effect and my dissertation on creativity and learning, and it is this I would like to talk about in the blogpost after this somewhat lengthy introduction.

An important part of my thesis was in fact dedicated to defining what 'learning' means, a topic that fascinated me then and now, to the extent that I have made it the focus of my work. One of the milestones on the subject is undoubtedly Gregory Bateson's theory of 'levels of learning'. Basically, Bateson, building on Whitehead and Russel's Logical Types theories and cybernetic models, formulated a theory of learning that allows learning to be defined on 4 logical levels (very interesting in relation to learning in Bateson, the whole subject of paradoxes but not the subject of our blogpost).

Below are Bateson's levels of learning described in extreme synthesis, with an example that will serve to clarify the link between Bateson's theory and the Overview Effect.


  • Level 0 - involves only a simple response to a stimulus (automatic learning, no reflexivity). This is, for example, the case when very strong stereotypes operate that generate rigid thinking routines that only allow obligatory responses to stimuli, with no possibility of alternatives. For example, take the case of a company that has produced waste and always throws it in the same spot in the sea. There is no other type of response available to them, throwing it in that spot is automatic, the routine of thought (or the mental scheme of the absolute priority of profit) does not allow them to see any alternatives.


  • Level 1 - involves choosing our response to the stimulus from among several alternatives in the same set. In this type of learning, it is therefore possible to change, in the specificity of the response, by correction of choice errors, within a given set of alternatives: the learned response remains appropriate only in that particular context, which must therefore occur the same again. Classical Pavlovian conditioning is an example of this type of learning. In our example of waste, one can decide to throw it in one place in the sea but also throw it in another place, because one realises, for example, that it is cheaper than the first. The different landings on the sea constitute the different alternatives in the set of choices.


  • Level 2 - In learning at this level, we are aware that alternatives may also be found in other sets: learning is thus about the change in learning process 1, a correction of the set of alternatives within which the choice is made. One is thus aware that choices occur within a given system of alternatives and is able to see and change sets of alternatives. So, to return to our production of waste, one can decide to throw it in the sea, but knows that there are other sets of alternatives, such as burning it, burying it, etc. Still it is only the profit principle that guides us.


  • Level 3 - This learning is very rare. It is the learning that occurs through the perception of the system of subsets of alternatives and in which the possibility of changing it is perceived. It occurs by being able to see sets of different contexts in which alternatives exist. In this type of learning 'the self becomes almost irrelevant and is no longer essential to the description of experience'. Insight occurs when we have an experience that puts us in deep contact with our interconnectedness with context, with the Cosmos, with Nature, with the realisation that we are not separate from it but integrated with it and that our choices change our future possibilities.


Learning 3 is rare because it occurs when the cognitive system is profoundly shaken (e.g. in a therapeutic situation or a mystical experience) and, Bateson says, almost bordering on pathological. One possible pathological pathway of learning 3 is precisely psychosis. If we return instead to the 'physiology of learning', and to our case of waste, type 3 learning could occur in a moment of profound awareness of the fact that by producing waste and dumping it in Nature we are actually intervening in our context and modifying it, thus threatening our chances of future survival.

The goal of personal profit is no longer a priority. This kind of learning starts from an important premise, which is to be able to perceive ourselves no longer as detached but in connection and communion with Nature. We can choose, for example,  to stop producing waste by rethinking our production process in a circular form, for example, so that waste becomes an input for another production process.

Two scientists, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, are the authors of a fascinating (but also controversial) theory, the famous 'Gaia hypothesis', according to which the Earth is a single living, breathing being composed of different living beings. According to this hypothesis, interconnectedness is not just a way of perceiving, of learning our contexts, but something more. Reducing complexity and feeling separated from it makes us impervious to empathy and suffering for how we treat Gaia, our planet-living being.

The Overview Effect is an interesting perspective to ask ourselves: how can we regenerate our view of the world? How can we generate the same personal movement that allows astronauts to never be the same again, once they have experienced this Effect? How do we access learning 3 about our human condition on this planet? How, collectively, to gain insight that leads us to radically rethink our production systems and our relationship with the Earth?

Learning 3 has a very strong spiritual component. The astronauts who were interviewed by Frank White spoke of spiritual alignment, of the transcendence of experience. Perhaps one way to feel this wave of love and tenderness towards our common home is to collectively and truly open ourselves to this dimension.