A team of researchers at Barcelona University has found that virtual reality experiences, if conducted in a certain way, can cause a reduced fear of death. The team has written a paper describing their experiments and published it on the PLOS ONE open access site.
Prior research and anecdotal evidence has shown that people who have near-death experiences quite often find they have less fear of death. Science has not found an explanation for this phenomenon, but now, the research team in Spain has found that similar sensations can be induced artificially by having volunteers experience out-of-body experiences using virtual reality gear.
To learn more about the possible effects of a virtual out-of-body experience, the research team enlisted the assistance of 32 female volunteers—each was asked to don a virtual reality headset and sit while the researchers manipulated their virtual environment.
At the beginning of the experiment, the volunteers were coaxed into greater immersion in their virtual environment by inducing the feeling of falling virtual balls touching them. This was accomplished via devices placed on the elbows and ankles of the volunteer—when a virtual ball landed on that part of their body, they felt a slight vibration. After a few moments of immersive activities, the researchers then changed the visual perspective the volunteers from first-person to a third-person perspective that was disconnected from their bodies—to cause the volunteers to feel as if they were leaving their bodies. They could see themselves being left behind as the camera moved higher toward the ceiling and an opposite wall. After a few minutes of the out-of-body section of the experiment, volunteers removed their headsets and filled out questionnaires, some of which had questions regarding their degree of fear of death.
The researchers report that those volunteers who were subjected to the out-of-body experience reported significantly less fear of dying than did those that did not experience that portion of the experiment. They suggest that the experience lessens the fear of death because it fools the mind into experiencing life after death, with no apparent negative consequences.