Certain writers have claimed that contemplating the vastness of space-time induces feelings of nihilistic dread, i.e. overwhelming feelings of being insignificant that threaten one’s sense of self. Such “cosmic horror” was a major theme in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote that we humans are protected by our own ignorance of the “vast infinities” in which we live and that becoming aware of the “terrifying vistas of reality” would either drive us mad or impel us to “retreat into a new dark age.”
This idea was famously parodied by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in which he described a terrible punishment that consisted of being put inside a machine called the “total perspective vortex” in which “you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’” In the novel, this experience was so unbearable that a person would instantly drop dead from the horror of it.
The idea that human life is insignificant on a cosmic scale has been seriously discussed by philosophers, but until recently, the psychological aspects of the experience of contemplating cosmic vastness have not been empirically explored. However, a 2018 research paper that actually refers to Douglas Adams’ book attempted to fill this gap (Hornsey et al., 2018), and the findings suggest that it may be safe to contemplate the cosmos after all.
The research by Hornsey et al. involved inducing in people a “cosmic perspective,” i.e., a sense of the enormity of the cosmos by having them watch a video that compares the size of the earth to a series of other bodies, starting from planets smaller than the earth, then progressing to bigger planets in the solar system, then to ever-larger celestial bodies including giant stars, then finally showing an image, taken by the Hubble telescope, of an expanse of space encompassing billions of lightyears. The aim was to induce a small sense of self.
They wanted to test two different predictions about what this might induce: either a liberating sense of self-transcendence allowing one to rise above self-focused concerns or a soul-crushing sense of annihilation. Previous research on the emotion of awe showed that self-diminishment may have positive aspects, such as a sense of self-transcendence that produces feelings of oneness with others. However, awe can have potential negative aspects, such as a sense of being unable to understand or accommodate the source of awe, particularly when induced by frightening phenomena that elicit feelings of powerlessness.
The authors particularly wanted to test how self-esteem affected the outcome of cosmic perspective induction. Specifically, they theorised that people with high self-esteem would experience self-diminishment positively and experience self-transcendence and oneness with others. On the other hand, people low in self-esteem might resist feelings of self-diminishment, and feel threatened by self-erasure, leading to reduced feelings of oneness with others.
They tested these theories in two experiments that involved comparing the results of a cosmic perspective induction with a neutral control condition and a “natural awe” induction (watching a video of lava spilling down the side of a volcano into surrounding bushland). Afterwards, participants answered questions about their emotional state and about to what extent they experienced self-diminishment (i.e., feeling small and insignificant, that one’s own issues and concerns don’t matter much in the larger scheme of things). To assess oneness with others, in study one, participants answered questions about their identification with all humanity, while in study 2, they read about a fictional humanitarian crisis and answered questions about their feelings of empathy and willingness to donate to relief efforts, as well as their attitudes to egalitarianism.
In both studies, the cosmic perspective induction produced a greater sense of self-diminishment, feelings of awe, and more positive emotions than the control and lava conditions. In study 1 only, the cosmic perspective and lava conditions produced a slight increase in negative emotions compared to the control condition, although there were no differences in this respect in study 2.
In both studies, the cosmic perspective induction had no effect on measures of oneness compared to the other two conditions, contrary to expectations. Somewhat more interesting were the results when people with high vs. low self-esteem were compared across the experimental conditions.
In study 1, people with low self-esteem experienced a small increase in negative emotion in both the cosmic perspective and lava conditions compared to the control condition, while those with high self-esteem had a slight increase in negative emotion in the lava condition only. This indicated that people with low self-esteem found both the cosmic perspective and lava conditions a little unsettling, although the effect was quite small, so it was not like they were filled with horror in either condition. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem only felt a little disturbed by viewing lava but not cosmic immensity. There was no effect of self-esteem on negative emotion in study 2 though.
Also in study 1 only, people with high self-esteem experienced an increase in positive emotion only in the cosmic perspective condition, whereas those with low self-esteem did not, suggesting that those with high self-esteem found the cosmic perspective induction relatively pleasant while those low in self-esteem were more indifferent. Additionally, in study 1, those low in self-esteem had slightly lower identification with all humanity after the cosmic perspective induction (although this did not quite reach statistical significance), but there was no effect for those high in self-esteem. In study 2, low self-esteem participants reported less egalitarianism and lower empathy for disaster victims after the cosmic perspective induction (donation intention was unaffected), while there were no effects for high self-esteem participants.
I found the effects on self-diminishment particularly interesting. In both studies, there was no effect of condition on self-diminishment in people with low self-esteem. Moreover, those with low self-esteem were higher in self-diminishment than those with high self-esteem in the control condition, suggesting that this is their baseline state.
On the other hand, people with high self-esteem experienced an increase in self-diminishment in the cosmic perspective induction, so that their level of self-diminishment equalled that of those with low self-esteem in all conditions. This suggests that a cosmic perspective induction alters the extent to which one feels small and insignificant only in those with high self-esteem. On the other hand, for those with low self-esteem, feeling small and insignificant is their normal state and contemplating cosmic vastness seems to make no difference in this respect.
The authors of the study argue that the lack of an effect on self-diminishment in those low in self-esteem after the cosmic perspective induction was a defensive reaction that resulted in reduced identification with humanity. This interpretation seems unlikely. Low self-esteem people already reported higher levels of self-diminishment than their high self-esteem counterparts. Perhaps there is a lower limit to how small and insignificant people may feel, and the low self-esteem participants had already reached it. Additionally, after the induction, those with high self-esteem became closer to those with low self-esteem in terms of self-diminishment. In any case, it is hard to see how the absence of an effect on self-diminishment could have produced changes in oneness with others. Hence, there is a lack of evidence that they experienced the cosmic perspective induction as threatening in this respect.
So, does contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, and one’s own insignificance in comparison, induce a crushing sense of annihilation? Going by the results of the study by Hornsey et al., it would seem not. People with high self-esteem seemed to enjoy the experience, suggesting that they may be comfortable with experiencing a small self. For people with low self-esteem on the other hand, the cosmic perspective induction did not seem to have much impact, as they were already used to feeling small and insignificant anyway, so perhaps being reminded of the immensity of the cosmos is just part of another crummy day for them.
To be fair, the researchers did not have the technology to replicate anything as awesome as Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, so perhaps the cosmic perspective induction was not powerful enough to really induce “cosmic horror.” On the other hand, maybe “cosmic horror” is not that serious a problem from a psychological rather than a philosophical perspective, even for those struggling with feelings of insignificance in daily life. If I might be allowed to speculate, it might be that during our evolutionary history, humans were accustomed to feeling that they were only a tiny part of a vast world, and that deep down they understood that they were insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things.
 The authors used a statistical technique of moderated mediation analysis to test the mechanism by which the cosmic perspective induction might influence self-diminishment and indirectly affect identification with all humanity in study 1 and egalitarianism and empathy in study 2. In both analyses, the effects for the low self-esteem participants were not statistically significant as the confidence intervals included zero. Despite the authors’ protestations to the contrary, this indicates a lack of evidence that self-diminishment had any effect on oneness with others in low self-esteem participants. Why these participants experienced reduced oneness with others after the cosmic perspective induction therefore remains unexplained.
Hornsey, M. J., Faulkner, C., Crimston, D., & Moreton, S. (2018). A microscopic dot on a microscopic dot: Self-esteem buffers the negative effects of exposure to the enormity of the universe. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 198–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.009