Virtual Reality Out-Of-Body Experience Shown To Reduce The Fear Of Death

This shows amazing therapeutic potential.

Researchers at the University of Barcelona have found that a virtual reality simulation of the out-of-body phenomenon reported by those who've had Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) can reduce the fear of death.

Their findings, published the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONEcame as the result of an experiment involving 32 volunteers. Each volunteer used a virtual reality headset and bodysuit that created tactile (touch feeling) sensations in response to virtual stimuli in the form of "balls" that they could interact with in their immersive VR environment.

The researchers describe the effects of wearing the VR headset and bodysuit:

"A person wearing a wide field-of-view head tracked stereo head-mounted display (HMD) can look in any direction within the virtual environment. In particular they can look towards their real body, and if the system has been so programmed they would see a life-sized virtual body visually substituting their own. Similarly they can see a reflection of the body in a virtual mirror and also shadows. With real-time motion capture the virtual body can be programmed to move synchronously with the person's real body movements. Moreover, if something is seen to touch the virtual body, the setup can include vibrotactile stimulation on the person's real body synchronous with the seen touch. Such multisensory stimulation typically leads to the perceptual illusion in people that the virtual body is their own, even though they know that this is not the case."

Imagine it this way: the volunteers were in a sort of video game that allowed them to feel things that were not actually there in a body that was not actually theirs.

If that still sounds confusing, don't worry, there's a video.


As the volunteers got more comfortable in the illusion, the researchers eventually began changing their viewpoints, allowing them to feel as though they were floating away from their virtual bodies. 

This was meant to replicate the Out-Of-Body Experience (OBEs) reported by many who've suffered NDEs and been brought back.

Afterwards, the volunteers completed a scaled questionnaire to measure their fear of dying.

Volunteers who had felt the greatest sense of total disconnection from their virtual bodies reported a much lower fear of dying than those who didn't. "The effect was quite strong," researcher Mel Slater told New Scientist, adding that the experience "gives a sense that it's possible to survive beyond death."

This type of experiment may hold therapeutic value for those engaged in end-of-life caregiving like hospice workers and nurses or in certain types of therapeutical settings where people suffer from disruptive phobias.

Slater's research recalls Thanatos, the ancient Greek personification of death, who appears as the twin brother of Hypnos (sleep) in classical mythology. Rather than something frightening or morbid, Thanatos was often pictured as an old man who came not bringing fear, but rather peace to those following all who've crossed over before them.

It's certainly research that getting us used to the idea of death can only improve our love of living.

Cover image via Shutterstock / Diego Cervo.

(H/T: 2045 Initiative.)

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