A new side to lean on

In my second mapping session today we adjusted the right ear to give more current in the high-frequency electrodes. That makes speech crisper, and I can get occasional words here and there when listening to books on tape. It sounds tantalizingly like real language, but I haven’t broken through yet.

— Yet? That’s like getting a bionic arm on Thursday and expecting to be able to play catch with it on Friday.

Still, it sounds so much like language that I’m wondering why my brain isn’t able to decode it. In a comment on “The World Whole and Full” Steve wrote, “Perhaps…something clicks in the brain that says ‘oh hey, I know what this is, communication — it’s time to access the speech comprehension database that the other ear uses all the time.’”

But I can’t say I’m having that experience. I’m not tapping into the database yet.

Perhaps the missing link is that I haven’t listened to books-on-tape while following along with the text yet. Maybe for a new ear, a new one-to-one mapping between percept and meaning needs to be established before comprehension can happen.

After the mapping I went to meet with two friends in a cafe in Palo Alto. This was my first social encounter since activation, and the setting was a doozy: dozens of people yammering away, cappucino machines howling, baskets of rattling forks, and rain pattering outside, lots of it.

Man, did it help to have a second ear. It helped considerably more than I expected it to. Even though the ear can’t deliver meaningful language yet, it delivers phonemes, lots of them, good solid ones. Here’s an analogy to describe what it felt like. Say that hearing’s like walking a tightrope across a river. It helps a lot to have one rope to hold onto — that’s like having one ear. Having two ropes, one on each side, makes things that much firmer and more solid; a sway in one direction can then be corrected by having the other side to push against.

That’s what having two ears is like.

So even though the right ear can’t understand much of anything on its own yet, the fact that it’s delivering phonemes in synchrony with the left gives me backup. If an “s” sound on the left is backed up with a simultaneous percept of crispness on the right, that makes the “s” that much more definitively an “s”.

Another side to lean on. I tried pulling off the right headpiece to see what things were like without it, and that side I was leaning on just dropped away. I lasted all of ten seconds before sticking it back on. “Wow, that helps,” I said. “Wow.”

I understood both of my friends without having to work very much to do it; it was easy. Amid the yowling of the cafe we had a perfectly civilized conversation.

Now I’ve just spent half an hour watching Seinfeld, right ear only, with Elvis snoozing on my chest. The extra amperage in the high frequencies makes all the characters sound over-the-top Noo Yawk nasal. Even Elaine, shiksa quintessential, sounds Jewish now.

I needed the captions to follow it. But there was an uncaptioned ad, a political spot for casino gaming laws, that I understood entirely. That really surprised me, since I didn’t get any of the ones before or after. Something about that particular voice came through as English.

So there was my breakthrough moment. The first thing my dead right ear understands on its own after thirty years of silence? An ad for casino gaming laws.

I’ll take it.


  1. sam alapati says


    Keep the daily blogs coming whenever you get a chance! I’ve been following your second CI experience keenly and am gratified by your success. I’m waiting for my own(simultaneous) BI in February.


  2. sam alapati says


    I was unable to understand the following sentence from your latest blog:

    “I understood them both without having to work very much to do it; it wasn’t hard.”

    Can you please clarify–thanks!


  3. OK, Sam, I rewrote the sentence.

  4. It is so interesting that you wrote, “Still, it sounds so much like language that I’m wondering why my brain isn’t able to decode it. ” My son got his second implant a year ago. At first he described what he heard through it as beeps. After a while he said it sounded like language, but he still couldn’t “hear” with it. I didn’t understand. I asked him, “If it sounds like language, and you know language, then how come you don’t know everything I’m saying?” I tried to get him to explain why he didn’t understand the parts of things he didn’t understand. Do they sound like mumbling? Do they sound too quiet? What? Being only 7 years old at the time, he didn’t care to go in depth about it. It’s interesting to hear similar comments to the ones he made, but from an adult.

  5. I’m really enjoying your perspective.

    Quick question: are you noticing any pitch difference between left and right? Probably the easiest way to test is to listen to some sort of reasonably pure tone with one implant only, memorize it, then switch to the other implant and listen again.

  6. Mike,

    Your brain is working and has already accepted its new “friend!” Once a person goes bilateral, it is very hard to go back to just one!

    Keep writing! Have you listened to “Bolero” yet?

  7. Thanks for the comment, Rhonda, I wrote “Shopping for some vowels” partly in response to it. And Laurie, yes, I’ve been listening to Bolero and other things, but it’s too early for me to write about that yet.

  8. I have had mixed feelings about my second implant (right ear), activated 10/2007. My first was activated April 2007. The first time, noise turn to sound, then garbled speech, the words, and within an hour I could hear full sentences. By the next morning I talked to my brother on the phone for twenty minutes without missing a word. This set *very* high expectations for my 2nd implant. I still don’t use the phone with my right ear, but I feel like if I forced it to be dominant by doing so, and possibly turned off the left, my brain would adjust and both ears would become more equivalent.

    My audiologist said most people don’t like their second one as much, but I love mine – I just don’t want to hear less so I can train it better in the meantime.

    I am still very tense and frustrated in party crowds – too much noise. I am still not giving up cc and miss some dialog when I go to the movies. I am just starting to try music, but I have to know what is playing in order to recognize and follow it. At a MOMIX show Sunday, the last piece used one of my favorite Talking Heads songs, Burning Down the House, and I didn’t know until my companions excitedly asked if I thought that was great. That made me feel like I missed a giant part of the jubilance of the piece – the emotion that would have been special to me.

    Lately I have been thinking I was more thrilled with my bionics when I didn’t try more than speech, and enjoyed the wonders of being able to hear people without seeing their faces. That’s an incredible thing, and it changed everything. But still….I want more!

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