Many people who have near-death experiences report coming away with a new perspective on their lives.
From a scientific standpoint, we don’t know much about how this works because it’s hard to study near-death experiences systematically. To quote the authors of a new study on near-death experiences, “it is impossible to design a scientific study where an experimental group experiences death (and returns) and a control group does not.”
So the authors of that study decided to do the next best thing: have people die in virtual reality.
They created a simulated reality in which each participant began as a child on a scenic island, with control of a virtual body. Over time, the participant aged as they explored the island along with two companions. They witnessed both of their companions die, and eventually they witnessed their own death.
The researchers tried to make this experience of dying in virtual reality as realistic as possible, incorporating sensations that people often report as part of near-death experiences. These included:
- Having one’s perspective detach from one’s physical body in an “out-of-body experience”
- Seeing a replay of events from one’s life
- Going through a tunnel toward a bright light
Once participants had died this virtual death, they returned to reality, where the researchers asked them several questions about their attitudes toward life. Compared to the control group, those who had experienced the virtual island life reported being less materialistic and more concerned with other people.
The researchers stress that while the sample size was relatively small (31 people total), these results point to the possibility that a virtual near-death experience can be transformational in the way a real near-death experience is, if not necessarily to the same degree.
The idea that what we experience in virtual reality doesn’t always stay in virtual reality is one that’s been explored before. Previous research has showed that virtual reality experiences can boost people’s creativity and make them less afraid of death.
More research has to be done to answer questions about the latest study – for example, how long do participants’ attitudes continue to be impacted by the virtual death experience after the experiment is over? But the findings do suggest that what we experience in virtual reality can change our perspective on life and our priorities. Dying in virtual reality might have implications for how we live in actual reality.