The World Whole and Full

I’m listening to NPR with my right ear plugged into my computer. It’s the first day in 30 years that my right ear has heard anything other than vague risings and fallings like the sussuration of the sea. Now, there’s definition. Most of the Ling vowels, the ooo and ahh and ssss and shhh sounds that constitute speech, are suddenly there like rocks emerging abruptly out of fog.

Or, to use another metaphor, it’s like watching an endless string of Hebrew letters streaming by — זקמרכלמטעמלךטכצד — in a way that looks like intelligible language but isn’t yet. Not yet. It’s too early. I can tell there’s serifs and curls and eddies in the soundstream, but they rush by heedless.

But on this first day, the ear works. Neural response telemetry showed that the nerves are responding strongly to the electrical stimulation. Eppur si muove: it reports to me the important news of footsteps, doors shutting, Elvis meowing, rain raking the roof of Diane’s Mini Cooper as it brought us back north to San Francisco. It is contributing, audibly, to the soundstream. As I paid for the mapping session the secretary to my right was rustling papers, and the ear delivered neural input – several million bits’ worth – to the effect of, Concussive/abrupt/staccato events are happening. Over here. On this side. I don’t know if you’re interested, but here you go. An inexperienced but eager junior partner, first day on the job, doing its best.

A very inexperienced junior partner. It is behaving strangely. Paradoxically, even. I called my mom using the right ear, and it understood her! really! but then I took off the left processor, and intelligible speech degraded into prosody. Parody. Yet my left ear is not good enough to hear a phone on the other side of my head muffled by auricles. I could not possibly have heard enough with my left ear to follow her. I do not understand that. Summation?…One ear juicing up the other?…

I’ve been testing the ear. Taking it out for a spin, seeing what it can do. When I watch TV captioned with only the right ear it can follow the voice as long as my brain has been informed by the captions what is coming. I can match up the neural input to the semantic meaning. I watched Abbie Cranmer’s activation video, which is captioned (beautiful move, Abbie – how did you do it?), and the ear could follow her voice quite well.

More paradoxes: when I listen only with the right ear, speech sounds are trailed by breathy echoes, hissy doublings of final phonemes – but it sounds like the hiss is coming from my left ear. When I take the right processor off, the hiss in my left ear lasts about five more seconds before fading out. Sometimes it’s a bright ringing hum rather than a hiss. As if my right processor was pumping the left ear full of data, like a balloon, which takes about five seconds to deflate once the soundstream shuts off.

Crosstalk. It feels like neural crosstalk, the experienced right hemisphere intercepting data from the left and trying, in befuddlement, to claim it as its own.

I tried music in the right ear. The Blue Danube was a croaky, asthmatic version of what the left ear hears. Unrecognizable as music. A long way to go on that score. (For the moment, I’m running Hi-Res 16 in both ears.)

The ears are unbalanced, too. The world sounds very different to each of them. The right ear seems to pick up only immediate sounds: my own voice, my footsteps. Sounds further away don’t seem to enter into the picture. An important task of my next mapping session, which is tomorrow, will be beginning the long work of balancing them.

What about localization? I try playing with my keyboard:


The a’s sound like they’re on my left, as they always have, but the ;’s sound like they’re on my right now, instead of just dimmer sounds on the left.

Am I really localizing? I could be fooling myself: what one perceives is strongly conditioned by expectations. The senses aren’t obedient dray animals that do as they’re told. They’re more like intelligent horses that, once you get on them, decide they have their own ideas about where you should go. My brand-new right ear is going to have a mind of its own even on its first day on the job.

It’s the beginning of a trajectory. Back in 2001, when my left ear was activated it couldn’t understand speech at all. Six months later I was using a cellphone. Now my right ear is on its way.

Having two ears feels both familiar and strange. My body is at once saying This is very strange and This feels strangely familiar. I was supposed to have two ears all along, and today, for the first time in thirty years, I do.


  1. I am so glad that the Junior partner is up and running on all 32 electrodes 🙂 That is so interesting how you are able to hear Mom on the phone with both partners on. Too bad there isn’t a blueprint involved with this entire process, but that is wickedly wild!

    If Junior perceives my voice in the video as sweet and raspy, then he is doing a very good job indeed of understanding 🙂 Did you happen to record your activation my good man? If you did, you could do what I did. I uploaded my video to YouTube and then used another site called to add the captions. It took me a long time for me and my direct connect cord to comprehend everything that was being said. I can’t wait for an update tomorrow. You are so lucky that you get to go back the next day, I had to wait a week!

    Salud to the Partners, may they live in holy harmony 🙂

  2. That’s what we all want — that it’s hitting on all sixteen and making some sort of sound, any sound. Congratulations!

    I notice odd things going on between my CI and hearing aid that I don’t think occurred when I was wearing two hearing aids. Both ears complain immediately with a short spell of tinnitus when my CI is turned off, and my hearing aid sounds very raspy on its own at first. Turning off my hearing aid is much more subtle: I lose the stereo sound field and some richness, but it’s not such a jolt. But two CIs must be a real tug-of-war at first.

    I look forward to reading about the process of getting OLD CI and NEW CI in sync.

  3. Michael…you tell it so well. I’m overjoyed that your ear’s working out for you…you’re so blessed to have the two ears working together!
    I know it will get better and better for you…and can’t wait to hear all about your experiences!!

  4. Michael,
    I am so excited about your “two ears.” I know the feeling. I wonder if it makes a differences having both ears implanted and activated at onces. It is hard for me to understand, since both mine were done at the same time. They work in harmony and it is terrible when only one on. I wish you enjoyment, love, happiness, music and of course sound.

  5. Awesome! Welcome to the bilateral world! You are off to a great start! My right ear is my newly planted ear and is my favorite. . . can’t wait to hear more from you!

  6. Fascinating, that you could understand your mom with your newly implanted right on the very first day, but only when your left implant was also switched on. Is something amazing going on in the brain that nobody fully understands yet? I don’t know, but I thought I’d share recent observations of my own:

    As I’m sure you know, doctors have often recommended implanting the decidedly superior ear, particularly if the other ear has had little to no practice over an extended period of time. This seems based on the opinion that the left-to-right and right-to-left ear/brain hemisphere connection is strictly independent of each other; that is, regardless of a person’s level of hearing (including any significant changes that may occur in life), the brain’s left hemisphere can never benefit the left ear and vice versa. However, recent data seems to suggest otherwise. There have been numerous observed cases where, when the little-used ear is implanted, as long as the other ear has had enough prior exposure with which the patient was readily able to identify sounds, said patient soon demonstrates remarkable auditory performance in the little-used ear. This is because, according to one surgeon, if the auditory system has been well-stimulated with the dominant ear, it will not make any difference if you have the less dominant ear implanted. I’ve heard elsewhere that the brain has only one “auditory processing system.” I guess I used to think it has two, one for either side.

    Anyway, not suggesting that yours is a superior/non-dominant ear situation, but that perhaps in certain situations such as when you hold a telephone to your newly implanted ear to begin a conversation, 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 this time.”

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