05 June 2024

Psychologists have proposed treating the fear of death with virtual reality

Scientists from the University of Barcelona have concluded that out-of-body experiences in virtual reality can help reduce the fear of death. This is reported in an article published in the journal Plos One.

Some people during clinical death, as well as in cases when they think they are dying, may experience unusual sensations, which are called near-death experiences. These can include euphoria, mystical visions ("light at the end of the tunnel") and a sense of leaving the so-called physical body. Psychologists note that out-of-body experiences can have a transformative effect on a person's personality. For example, some people who have experienced a strong feeling of "separation" from a motionless body sometimes change their attitude to the world and reduce their fear of death.

Modern research shows that out-of-body experiences can be induced specifically, for example, through electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain or by immersion in virtual reality. The authors of the new work decided to study whether artificially provoked experience will affect the fear of death in humans.

Thirty-two people took part in the scientists' experiment. In order to cause volunteers the illusion of leaving the physical body, psychologists used virtual reality glasses. While the study participants were in the virtual world, the movements of their avatar were synchronised with the movements of the real body. In addition, the person could see his reflection in the mirror and shadow, as well as feel the physical impact of virtual objects, as special devices were attached to his body. Thus, when a ball fell on the avatar's leg, the subject felt a vibration in his leg.

After the volunteers had a feeling that the virtual body belonged to them, the researchers proceeded to the second part of the experiment. This time, the study participants looked at their body from the outside, as if watching it from the ceiling of the room. At the same time, one group of subjects continued to feel the vibration in their leg when the ball dropped, while the other group did not. In addition, in the second group, the movements of the real body and the avatar were no longer synchronised.

A short while later, the volunteers filled out a questionnaire that asked them how they felt during the experiment, as well as how afraid they were of dying. The results of the study showed that all participants experienced a so-called out-of-body experience when changing the angle of view, but the first group - to a much lesser extent (unlike the other group, which had a pronounced feeling that the body did not belong to them, it felt a connection with the avatar). The second group had a markedly reduced fear of death - on average, they were less worried about what would happen to them after death and the fact that they would never be able to experience anything again. At the same time, both groups had similar levels of fear of dying young, with the second group even more worried about life being short.

Nevertheless, the researchers note that during the experiment, the participants were unlikely to radically change their attitudes towards death and dramatically stop fearing it. Psychologists say that such an experience, rather, can cause a person to feel that consciousness can exist separately from the body. "In this way, people get the feeling that it is possible to survive after death," notes one of the authors of the paper. However, scientists do not know whether such "therapy" can help people whose lives are complicated by a powerful fear of death - more experiments with larger numbers of participants are needed. In addition, it is not clear whether the survey method is suitable for such a study, as in this case it does not allow to determine the power of influence on the deep beliefs of a person.

The mechanisms of out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences are still poorly understood. In the scientific community, cases of near-death experiences are regarded as hallucinations or neuropsychological phenomenon, which is related to the work of the brain under conditions of oxygen and glucose deficiency. Factors that can cause such effects include hypoxia, hypercapnia, the effects of endorphins and serotonin, ketamine exposure, and pathological activity of the temporal lobe cortex or limbic system.

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