Anecdotes like that, which are staples of mid-morning TV, rarely show up in controlled clinical studies. But what's most intriguing about the Dutch research is the number of patients reporting loss of fear of death. Fear of death is hard-wired into our mind by millions of years of evolution: our ancestors would not have survived without it, and the ones who reproduced - that is, passed along their genes - were likely to have been the ones most keenly afraid of dying, and therefore most cautious. People might overcome the fear of death through philosophical or religious contemplation. But for this fear simply to vanish at a moment of near death doesn't make much sense in terms of evolutionary psychology. Something must be going on.

Van Lommel did not attempt to study whether that something is broadly psychological. Men and women grow up thinking that heaven is white light and angels have wings; as death approaches, the brain sees what it expects to see, perhaps generating visions of an afterlife as a sort of last-second self-defense mechanism, to protect the dying mind from experiencing terror. This has always seemed to me the most likely non-supernatural explanation of the near death experience, and it awaits research.

Still, you're being closed-minded if you don't consider that what is happening may be related to an afterlife. What haunted me after plowing through the pages of the Lancet study was this: the majority of the patients van Lommel studied recovered fully and are still with us, but of those who had the "core" experience of the door to another life being opened, most died within 30 days.

It was as if their time had come, then a physician intervened, and then their time did come, and the hand holding the door the first time they approached it had known they were the ones who should be shown what was next. People with many years left to live given proper medical care - that is, the bulk of the patients in the Dutch study - wouldn't have a near death experience because they were not yet at the moment when "the time has come." A person sure to die soon regardless of medical care would have the experience. Call it eerie; this is what the Dutch statistics show.

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