Why should the benefits of dying be limited to the dead (or nearly dead)?
That’s the question that Mel Slater hasn’t been able to get out of his head. Slater, a distinguished investigator in clinical psychology at the University of Barcelona, had been interested in near-death experiences, or NDEs, for years. While they’re considered fairly rare, thousands of these incidents have been documented in diaries, medical case studies, and online forums—and analyzed by researchers for similarities.
It turns out, the stereotypical bright light at the end of the tunnel is real; many people who almost die report the same key visuals. What’s less well known is that survivors also often report an overwhelming sense of peace, gratitude, and even oneness of the world. “You see your life as a whole,” Slater told The Daily Beast, “and you realize the meaning of life is more important than buying my next car.”
So Slater, who’s also co-director of the university’s cutting-edge eventLAB (that’s Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology), decided to use virtual reality to replicate crucial aspects of a near-death experience—and, he hoped, the radical shift in perspective that sometimes accompanies it.
He’s not alone. As new technologies proliferate, researchers, artists, and more are mixing imagination and machinery in hopes of peeking behind death’s door. They aim to help users reduce their fear of death, build empathy for the dying, process grief, and more. Now, the only question is, does it actually work?
For as long as there have been modern VR headsets, people have been using them to explore the last goodbye. As early as 2016, researchers were testing whether simulations could help hospice workers, medical students, and others build empathy for their terminally ill patients. One project, designed by Embodied Labs, allowed users to see the world from the point of view of “Clay,” a 66-year-old man terminally ill with lung cancer, as his family gathers around his bedside.
Now, VR and other simulations are also playing a role in processing existing grief. A recent South Korean documentary, Meeting You, followed a woman on her journey to “meet” her daughter, who had died of blood cancer at the age of 7, in VR. And digital clones, which allow users to “chat” with dead loved ones, are coming to market.
Of course, not everyone is excited about these advances; some fear that new technology could actually make grieving harder. (There is something decidedly uncanny about, say, Kanye West gifting Kim Kardashian a hologram of her dead father for her 40th birthday.) But companies in the death tech space clearly believe there’s a market for these services—and researchers think they could have immense value to the living.
That said, replicating near-death experiences in VR is proving difficult. To date, it’s mostly been the purview of artists, who strive for immersion over accuracy or other outcomes.
In 2018, the San Francisco-based art collective Lava Saga staged an interactive show called “Second Chance” at the annual Reimagine End of Life festival. Visitors sat through a 4-minute-long VR sequence of otherworldly scenes, then laid down on a nearby bed. A white sheet was pulled over their heads, while a cellist played a dirge. From there, visitors moved into small groups to discuss their feelings. “I hope that people emerge with a new perspective and a new relationship with what it means to die,” Kelly Vicars, who helped develop the project, told Fast Company. “And that’s [to] live.”
Designer Jose Montemayor has also tried his hand at replicating the afterlife. He paired up with neuroscientist Tamara Russell to launch a series of workshops called The Death Incubator, which uses VR to pull participants up and out of their body and through ever-higher planes of existence in the company of supernatural beings. “We fundamentally believe that a different sort of relationship with death can help us to live more fully,” Russell told Freethink. Their work has been likened to exposure therapy.
But Slater and his research team took things a step further. It took more than a year of full-time design work between two people to create this virtual island world. “It was the hardest thing we’d ever done,” he says. There, three study participants, represented by blue humanoids, worked together to complete tasks over six 30-minute increments. In that time, each participant watched both of their companions die, and their own Avatar-style bodies age.
Then, in the sixth and final session, when it was their turn to die, the participants were transported through a replica of three of four crucial aspects of a near-death experience: They floated over their own virtual body, reviewed their life experiences, and moved through a tunnel toward white light. (They did not, however, meet their loved ones on the other side—an element Slater would like to test in the future.) When all was said and done, the “dead” participant was yeeted off the island.
The experience was well-reviewed, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE. By and large, the 15 participants seemed to enjoy their time on the island and the company of their virtual friends. “They weren’t afraid, but they were sad,” Slater says. There was some movement on scales of terror management and implicit bias. But it doesn’t appear that a cumulative three hours in a VR headset dramatically changed the way people lived their lives. “Obviously it’s nowhere near as powerful as when it really happens,” Slater says of a simulated NDE.
That’s because Lava Saga, the Death Incubator, and Slater face many of the same core challenges. For one, designing life-like experiences of any kind is hard. That’s especially true when the interactives are largely predetermined by the designer, and participants get little or no chance to personalize their time in the simulation.
At the same time, a real NDE is a physiologically charged experience. The body is likely flush with adrenaline, steroids, and epinephrine, in a way that can’t be reliably (or ethically) simulated in the lab. It’s also possible that the component parts of an NDE—the bright lights and the long tunnels—can’t be reverse-engineered into a reliably life-altering experience.
Nonetheless, VR researchers keep trying. Slater has found that simulating an out-of-body experience in isolation can lower people’s fear of death—at least among healthy participants. Another of Slater’s studies, published in PLOS ONE in 2017, created this illusion by putting participants in a head-mounted VR set that was fed footage collected of the participants from other angles, including directly behind and above them. The effect, according to the paper, was that “their real body was disowned, considered as an empty shell.” Rather than causing anxiety, this new perspective seemed to ease it.
Going forward, Slater says that these methods of study must be continually refined. For example, rather than simply relying on existing accounts of NDEs to design their virtual worlds, researchers might ask people who have nearly died to beta test their simulations. That way, their feedback can be incorporated in the design stage.
While Slater hopes that one day everyone will be able to confront their fear of death, these virtual worlds may prove most useful to those who are already terminally ill—almost like psychedelics, but using headsets instead of ’shrooms. Other research is already hinting at possible benefits: In one study from Japan, for example, simulated VR travel with Google Earth reportedly led to improvements in pain among cancer patients in a palliative care ward.
Whatever challenges lie ahead, the interest in simulating near-death experiences is sure to last. As long as people fear death, they’ll want a way to face it from the comfort of their own couch.
This story is part of a series on the innovation of death—how research and technology is changing the way we put the deceased to rest, how we grieve, and how we perceive death moving forward. Read the other stories here: