The writing has been on the wall for some time now. Virtual and augmented realities will soon become a part of our daily existence, changing the nature of our reality and our perceptions of each other and the world around us. Aside from uses in entertainment, doctors are already prescribing virtual reality to relieve pain or anxiety, allow paralyzed individuals to better control prostheses, and have even created VR experiences intended to help head transplant patients with their transitions. Yes, you read that correctly: head transplant patients.
More recently, neuroscientists at the University of Barcelona in Spain have created virtual reality experiences they claim can help with one of humanity’s most universal experiences: the fear of dying. Their research centered around the use of virtual reality to make users perceive a virtual body to be their own. Wearing headsets, users can watch as their real-world body movements are mimicked by an on-screen avatar. Special haptic devices even allow for virtual objects to be “felt” by users in the form of vibrations. Once users have established a connection with their virtual avatars, they are shown that same avatar from above, as if they are having an out-of body experience, or OBE.
According to their published data, researchers believe these virtual OBEs can help individuals conceive of their consciousnesses as being separate from the stinking sacks of meat commonly referred to as their physical bodies:
Our results open up the possibility that the virtual OBE experience provides an implicit learning that consciousness in the sense of the centre of perception can be separate from the physical body, and that therefore death of the physical body is not necessarily the end of consciousness.
Users were given a questionnaire at the conclusion of their virtual experiences which, among other things, asked them to rate their anxiety about dying. Those questionnaires showed that the virtual OBE participants ranked their fear of dying much lower than control groups who had no virtual OBE. While near-death experiences (NDE) have been shown in the past to make individuals far less anxious about death, this study claims that these virtual OBEs can have the same effect:
Our results are consistent with such empirical findings as there are, that people who have had spontaneous OBEs, not necessarily in the context of a NDE, are also likely to have reduced death anxiety.
Little is known about either near-death or out-of-body experiences due to the fact that they are quite difficult to replicate in laboratory settings. Nonetheless, the fact that so many individuals report similar effects of both of these experiences shows that science can only go so far in explaining the greater mysteries of human experience. As researchers develop virtual experiences like this one, though, technology might soon be able to tap into parts of our consciousness previously limited to psychedelic or near-death experiences. Sign me up.