Can virtual reality help us confront our fear of death? Maybe so. At least, that's the conclusion reached by an odd little psychological experiment recently performed in Spain.
In the research study, 32 female volunteers at the University of Barcelona were outfitted with Oculus VR headsets as well as vibrating motion trackers on their hands and feet.
The participants were encouraged to identify with their virtual body through a series of exercises. Motion tracking provided visual feedback; when the subject moved her arms in the real world, she could see her arms moving in the virtual world. The sensors also included a tactile, or haptic, mechanism. When a ball bounced off the virtual body's foot or hand, the participant felt the impact on her real foot or hand.
That's when things got freaky. Once the illusion was established, the virtual point of view detached from the virtual body, rising up to the ceiling of the virtual room and looking down so that participants could see their own virtual body below. The sequence was designed to replicate the classic out-of-body experience reported by people in dreams or during near-death experiences.
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With the new top-of-the-room perspective established, the virtual ball continued to bounce off the virtual body's head and feet. At this point, researchers split the test subjects into two groups. Half continued to feel impact vibrations through the sensor unit, the other half felt nothing at all.
Afterward, all participants were given questionnaires designed to gauge their fear of death. Those who felt entirely disconnected from their body during the virtual out-of-body experience - those who stopped getting the vibrations - reported a significantly lower fear of dying, according to standard psychological assessments, as compared to the control group.
The hypothesis is that reduced sensory identification with the body - in this case, a virtual body - reinforces the idea that consciousness is separate from the physical form. This concept is, of course, central to any belief in life after death.
"Fear of death in the experimental group was found to be lower than in the control group," researchers conclude in the study abstract. "This is in line with previous reports that naturally occurring [out-of-body experiences] are often associated with enhanced belief in life after death."
So maybe virtual reality really can help us get over our fear of death. Now if they'd just address fear of public speaking. Hey, whaddya know - there's an app for that.
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