In death, one form of sensory perception persists
Talking to a loved one as they pass may indeed be give them some comfort.
No one fully understands what, if anything, we feel or perceive in the last few moments of life. But scientists think that, as we die, our senses begin to check out. Our sense of smell and taste go, touch and sight disappear.
For years, scientists believed hearing was the final sense to go — our last connection to this Earth the voices of our loved ones. But you cannot talk to the dead, so conducting a scientific study to fully elucidate what happens during the end of life is impossible. Most of the evidence to support this hypothesis hangs on anecdotal accounts of near-death experiences, which are unreliable at best.
But a study from June of this year provided some of the first robust proof that, as the body begins to shut down, our sense of hearing hangs around.
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Using a brain-scanning method called electroencephalography, the researchers behind this study analyzed the electrical activity in the brains of 13 people who were in hospice with terminal illnesses. Eight of the study participants were conscious and responsive during the experiment, while five were unresponsive. In the experiment, all the participants listened to five auditory tones while the researchers measured and analyzed their brain activity. The researchers then compared these data with the brain activity of 17 conscious, healthy controls.
"At least some patients, some of the time, can comprehend what loved ones are saying to them."
It seems that, in the final hours of life, the dying brain responds to auditory stimuli — even if the person is in an unconscious state and doesn’t respond physically to stimuli, the results suggest.
Lawrence Ward is the study's senior author and a professor at the University of British Columbia. He told Inverse at the time that the data suggest people, even in the moments before death, can continue to hear and register sound in much the same way as a healthy person.
"What we know is that some of these patients' auditory systems are functioning in what seems to be close to a 'normal' manner," Ward said.
What, exactly, the person actually hears is still a mystery — we can see the electrical activity suggesting they hear, but whether what they hear is intelligible or registered is up for debate. It’s possible they may not be able to understand language, or identify voices.
But Ward, for his part, is optimistic.
"I would say it is possible — but certainly not proven — that at least some patients, some of the time, can comprehend what loved ones are saying to them, or even what is being said around them when they are unresponsive," Ward said.
Ultimately, the findings suggest continuing to talk to a person as they die may in fact offer more solace and comfort than we could have imagined.
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