New medical research appears to confirm the ancient Tibetan Buddhist belief that hearing is the last sense to go when people die.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that although many people become unresponsive during their final hours, the dying brain continues to respond to sounds right up until the end.
In the study, which was published in Scientific Reports, Canadian researchers led by PhD student Elizabeth Blundon analysed and compared data from healthy control participants, conscious hospice care patients, and those same patients when they became unresponsive. All patients tested gave their consent in advance.
Study participants listened to patterns of common and rare sounds that changed frequency. Both groups responded to the rare sounds by giving a pre-arranged signal, and distinctive EEG responses were also recorded at these moments.
In the unconscious patients, near death, the same EEG responses were found to occur when the rare tones were played.
Neuroscience News reported that the research was motivated by the experiences of long term palliative care physician Dr Romayne Gallagher, who was excited to learn that hearing really did appear to be the last sense to go, as she had suspected.
‘This research gives credence to the fact that hospice nurses and physicians noticed that the sounds of loved ones helped comfort people when they were dying,’ said Dr Gallagher.
‘To me, it adds significant meaning to the last days and hours of life and shows that being present, in person or by phone, is meaningful. It is a comfort to be able to say goodbye and express love,’ she said.
Lead researcher Elizabeth Blundon said what while the evidence of brain activity suggests that a dying person is hearing, they can’t confirm exactly how much people are aware of what they’re hearing.
While this question remains to be answered, she said, ‘This first glimpse supports the idea that we have to keep talking to people when they are dying because something is happening in their brain.’