Scientists reduce fear of death by using virtual reality to induce an out-of-body experience

Virtual reality systems can create out-of-body experiences — and these experiences may be able to reduce the fear of death, according to a recently published study.

“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,” the study’s corresponding author, Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona, told PsyPost. “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.”

“Here 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. 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.”

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, used an Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted-display to induce out-of-body experiences in 16 women.

The researchers used a virtual reality simulation to induce what is known as the “full body ownership illusion.” They created the illusion that a virtual human body in the simulation was the participant’s own. After this illusion took hold, the participant’s perspective was then shifted from first-person to third-person, making it seem as if their visual perception had been lifted out of their body.

Another 16 women, who were used as a control group, experienced a similar virtual reality simulation except the researchers did not induce an out-of-body experience.

After the simulation, the participants who had the virtual out-of-body experience had lower levels of fear of death on average than the control group.

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

The research, however, is still in the preliminary stages.

“It was a single study so it needs to be replicated,” Slater said. “The study relied only on a questionnaire, and it would be interesting to see if there were long-term effects on the relationship of people towards death.”

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

The study, “A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Reduces Fear of Death“, was also co-authored by Pierre Bourdin, Itxaso Barberia, and Ramon Oliva. It was published January 9, 2017.