Final sense people lose when they are close to death revealed by experts
Families of patients close to death are often told by doctors to talk to their relatives and whisper any words of comfort they may have.
This is because research suggests that as people lay dying, their hearing is still functioning.
It means that the brain continues to register the last sounds a person will ever hear, even if their body has become unresponsive.
A study, published in June 2020, found that the brains of “actively dying” patients in palliative care still registered activity in response to sounds.
Researchers monitored brain activity in 17 healthy control patients, eight responsive hospice patients and five unresponsive hospice patients.
Each patient was presented with two kinds of five-note songs, with a version having just five repeated notes, while others had changes in tones or different patterns.
Healthy and responsive patients were asked to count the number of songs where those patterns changed.
Scientists found that the patterns of brain activity in non-responsive were similar to those seen in healthy patients, which suggests people still hear as they die.
The study says: “We have presented evidence that at least a few actively dying hospice patients, when they are unable to respond to family or healthcare provider verbal stimuli, nonetheless seem to be hearing and giving neural responses to sequences of simple auditory stimuli.
“This is consistent with the trope that hearing is one of the last senses to lose function when a person is dying, and lends some credence to the advice that loved ones should keep talking to a dying relative as long as possible.”
Lawrence Ward, the study’s senior author and a professor at the University of British Columbia, said: “What we know is that some of these patients’ auditory systems are functioning in what seems to be close to a ‘normal’ manner.”
While understanding that hearing is the last sense we lose when we die, however, scientists said it is not clear whether patients actually understand what they hear after registering it.
The expert told Inverse : “It is possible that some of their cognitive processes are still functioning even though they can’t respond overtly.
“What we don’t know is whether they understand and are comforted by those words.”
Zachary Palace, MD, medical director of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York, previously said hearing is “the most passive sense”.
The scientist explained that when death seems imminent, doctors “encourage families to talk and share their last thoughts, love, and support with their loved ones because even though the blood pressure is dropping and they’re fading out, they can hear what we’re saying.”