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Head toward the light: The science of near-death experiences

Want to know what it’s like to be dead? Ask Julie Maeder, a 50-year-old certified image consultant from Troy, Mich.

"When I was 13 years old, I was in northern Michigan at my family’s cabin and came down with a 106 degree fever,” she says. “I remember trying to fall asleep and feeling too hot. And then I began to notice the room getting darker and the moonlight disappearing.”

After that, Maeder says, the really weird stuff began to happen. She started to float up towards the ceiling, even though her body was still lying on the bed. Her pain completely vanished and soon she was being pulled down a long, dark tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, there was a blinding white light and a sense of peace and calmness and utter joy.

“It was fantastic,” she says.

It’s also standard operating procedure for what Diane Corcoran calls a near-death experience, or NDE.

“There are about 15 characteristics that are universal in a near-death experience,” says Corcoran, president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies. “Some people will have one or two characteristics, some people have all 15.”

Corcoran says out-of-body experiences are just one hallmark of an NDE. Others include an immediate relief of pain, a feeling as if you’re traveling through a tunnel or to some other place, a feeling of being surrounded by bright light and an overwhelming sense of peacefulness. In addition, some people will see -- and even speak to -- departed relatives; others will see religious figures. Still more have talked about seeing flowers and hearing music -- and being filled with a tremendous sense of knowledge.

“Not everyone has all of them but we hear about these repeatedly,” she says. “There are also significant after-effects. People will come back with a whole different set of values; they’ll come back more affectionate and altruistic and less materialistic They’ll be more spiritual, although not necessarily more religious.”

The big question, of course, is whether the NDE is some kind of journey to the other side or whether it’s the body’s reaction to trauma. And there is evidence to support both theories.

Earlier this year, the medical journal Critical Care reported that Slovenian researchers had determined that people who reported near-death experiences had elevated levels of carbon dioxide in their blood and might be suffering from oxygen deprivation, the symptoms of which (particularly euphoria and the feeling of moving towards a light) can be similar to the symptoms of an NDE.

But Corcoran says studies attempting to debunk the millions and millions of NDEs that have been reported over the years are nothing new.

“People are always trying to find a reason to explain it away,” she says. “What usually happens is they can account for one or two of the characteristics, but they can’t account for all of the characteristics. How do you account for a 7-year-old who comes back knowing all about his dead grandfather from England who died in a fire, even though neither of his parents knew about it and the child has never left his own city block? Oxygen deprivation doesn’t account for those things.”

An international study launched in 2008 may provide more answers, though. Dubbed AWARE (short for Awareness During Resuscitation), the study will follow people who’ve gone into cardiac arrest in 25 hospitals in the U.S. and Europe. Researchers plan to monitor patients’ brain oxygen levels as well as test for out-of-body experiences, via a picture shelf installed high above the patients’ beds in cardiac ICUs (the patients will have to be “floating” outside of their body in order to see a photo on the shelf).

Unfortunately, results of the AWARE study won’t be released for at least two more years.

In the meantime, there’s always Clint Eastwood’s vision of the "Hereafter" to tide people over. Or experiences like that of Julie Maeder, who says that while her NDE happened nearly 40 years ago, it still resonates.

"When I told my parents about my experience after I woke back up in my bed the next morning, they said I must have been hallucinating because of the fever," says Maeder, whose fever broke at some point during the night when she saw the light. "But I still remember it. I’ll never forget it. And I can say that although I enjoy my life and don’t want to die any time soon, I’m not afraid of dying. I kind of think it’s going to be an unbelievable experience. I think we’re all going to a great place.”

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