Growing up, every time I attended a funeral or visited an ill person in the hospital, I was overcome with the fear of dying. As I’ve gotten older and felt every birthday go by, as well as witnessed others pass away, this fear has stayed with me. I know I’m not alone, and many people have this same anxiety.

Death is a part of life, but it’s the hardest part to come to terms with for many of us. What if there were a way to help eliminate this fear, though? Could there be a scientific method to learning to accept the inevitable?

One researcher thinks so. Mel Slater, a professor from the University of Barcelona, along with a team of researchers, decided to test this theory using something original – virtual reality.

The Experiment

By using technology to create an out-of-body experience, the team at the University of Barcelona aimed at testing their hypothesis of ‘curing’ a person’s fear of death. Professor Slater and his team tested 32 female volunteers in their experiment.

Prior to the study, each person was given a questionnaire. These questions included the topic of death – specifically each individual’s perception of death, as well their level of fear pertaining to it.

After answering the questionnaire, the individual was led to a chair, had their feet propped up onto a table, and they were given an Oculus Rift VR headset to wear.

How does this virtual reality headset work?

Along with the VR headset, each subject was covered in a series of movement trackers and vibrators to record every move they made and enhance their experience.

After placing the virtual reality headset, trackers and vibrators on them, the team directed the subject to perform a set of tasks. These tasks started off simple enough – lifting their legs, stretching, moving their arms around. Each move the person made was recorded and mimicked by their avatar in the virtual world they were experiencing.

After the basic tasks were accomplished, the subject was then moved to a virtual living room setting. In the new setting, they were given a few more complicated tasks, such as kicking a ball around, using virtual depth perception to catch, and more.

After a little while, the subject became in sync with their avatar, at which point the team behind the experiment made the subject feel as if they were beginning to float. This caused the person to react as if they were having an out-of-body experience.

They began to see their avatar below them as they watched from above. After the experiment concluded, each person was asked the same series of questions as before, but this time the team got different answers. According to the researchers, the subjects revealed they were much less fear of dying than before the study was conducted.

Is VR the ‘Cure?’

While the subjects from the experiment said they were less fearful as a whole, keep in mind there were only 32 people, and they were all female. So this experiment can conclude that the virtual reality experience may have an effect on these participants, there’s no data to conclude males would react the same way.

Let’s not undermine this study, though. Professor Slater and his team have now opened the door to more experiments to further prove, or maybe disprove, this hypothesis.

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