An illusion that mimics near-death experiences seems to reduce people’s fear of dying.
Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and his team have used virtual reality headsets to create the illusion of being separate from your own body. They did this by first making 32 volunteers feel like a virtual body was their own. While wearing a headset, the body would match any real movements the volunteers made. When a virtual ball was dropped onto the foot of the virtual body, a vibration was triggered on the person’s real foot.
This technique is similar to the “rubber hand illusion”, making people feel that a body is their own, even though they know it can’t be. Once the illusion was established, the volunteers watched as their viewpoint changed – they appeared to float away from the virtual body, observing it from above. This time, when balls were dropped on the virtual body, only half the volunteers were given a vibration. Those that did receive one still felt connected to the body.
Afterwards, the volunteers answered a standard questionnaire to assess their fear of death. People who had felt totally disconnected from their body – and the virtual body – reported having a significantly lower fear of dying. “The effect was quite strong,” says Slater.
It’s unlikely that the experience changed these volunteers’ feelings about death. But Slater thinks the experience might give a feeling that a person’s consciousness is separate from their physical body. “It gives a sense that it’s possible to survive beyond death,” he says.
The virtual experience is similar to some kinds of near-death out-of-body experiences. Some people who survive heart failure have described seeing the hospital room from the ceiling during critical moments, says Slater.
He doesn’t know yet if the virtual illusion could help comfort people who are terminally ill, or whose lives are made difficult by a powerful fear of death.
Author: Jessica Hamzelou