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PLoS One. 2018 Nov 5;13(11):e0203358. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0203358. eCollection 2018.

Virtual mortality and near-death experience after a prolonged exposure in a shared virtual reality may lead to positive life-attitude changes.

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Event Lab, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.


Mortality is an obvious if uncomfortable part of the human condition, yet it is impossible to study its impact on anyone who experiences it. Reports of phenomena associated with death such as out-of-the-body (OBE) and near death experiences (NDE) can only be studied post-hoc, since it is impossible to design a scientific study where an experimental group experiences death (and returns) and a control group does not. Yet NDEs seem to have a profound influence on the subsequent lives of people and are therefore worthy of study. Terror Management Theory, which argues that death anxiety contributes to in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups, relies on studies that manipulate opinions and cannot be based on experiential evidence. Here we introduce a potential methodology that uses immersive virtual reality (VR) for the study of mortality and NDEs. Participants are embodied in alternate bodies in a beautiful island along with two companions. They explore the island and carry out tasks together. The mechanism of embodiment produces strong illusions of ownership over their life-sized virtual bodies. Over time each participant witnesses the death of the two companions and then her own death-which includes the reported features of an NDE (OBE, life review, the tunnel leading to white light) followed by a period of observation of the continuing activities in the virtual world on an external screen. Fifteen female participants experienced 6 sessions in the island, each starting as a child and gradually maturing, and eventually ageing and dying. Sixteen control subjects formed a waiting group. We introduce this as a methodology for the study of these issues, and present promising results, suggesting that those who experienced the island report life attitude changes, becoming more concerned with others and more interested in global rather than material issues compared to the control group. The results are based on a small sample size, and should be considered as indicative of the possibilities of this new methodology as a way forward for future studies in this field.

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