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Researchers Using VR to Minimize the Fear of Death

A new study finds that creating out-of-body sensations in VR can help change your attitude towards death.

Death can be an extremely difficult concept for some to accept. Despite actually knowing very little about it, many individuals find themselves terrified by the idea of reaching the inevitable end we all share. Personally, I’m more concerned with other, more daunting issues such as sharks or maintaining a constant supply of Oreos. But for the more level-headed folks struggling to wrap their head around the idea of death, there is hope.

According to the published study A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Reduces Fear of Death, scientists at the University of Barcelona have successfully reduced the fear of death in subjects using a virtual reality experience designed to induce an out-of-body experience. As part of the experiment, 32 women were placed inside an Oculus Rift headset and underwent a simulation designed to introduce the “full body ownership illusion.” This process convinces the subject that the virtual body presented in the experience is actually their own, fully engaging them within the digital world.

Once the illusion was completed, 16 of the women were shifted from 1st person to 3rd person to help replicate the sensation of rising out from your own body. The other 16 served as the control group and remained in their original point of view. According to the data collected, the 16 women who were thrown into 3rd person on average had a reduced fear of death when compared to the control group.

“We wanted to see what the effects were of establishing a strong feeling of ownership over a virtual body, and then moving people out of it, so simulating an out-of-body experience,” said the study’s corresponding author Mel Slater in an interview with PsyPost. “According to the literature, out-of-body experiences are typically associated with changes of attitudes about death, so we wanted to see if this would happen with a virtual out-of-body experience.”

According to Slater, the immediate findings point towards “implicit evidence that it is possible to separate consciousness from the body, which may have the impact of changing attitudes towards death.”

The study goes on to identify several other valuable use-case scenarios in which VR could be utilized to alter the attitudes and perspectives on a broad range of different subject matter.

“My lab has been working for many years on the influence of changing someone’s body in virtual reality on their attitudes, perceptions, behavior and cognition,” continued Slater. “For example, placing White people in a Black virtual body reduces their implicit racial bias, while putting adults into a child body changes their perceptions and self-identification.”

The study is still in a stage of infancy as new findings continue to roll in. Slater has already expressed interest in studying long term effects of these VR “treatments” as well.

“We have another more sophisticated study that has been completed that will hopefully be published in a few months.”

Coauthored by Pierre Bourdin, Itxaso Barberia, and Ramon Oliva, A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Reduces Fear of Death was published January 9th, 2017 in the journal PLOS One.

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