In which I talk about musical hallucinations – updated

Update: It looks like KQED will air “Pop Music”, the Radiolab show in which I’m interviewed, at 8pm today, Pacific Time, March 5th. You can go to the KQED website at that time and click on the “Listen Live” icon about halfway down the page.

The show’s about earworms and musical hallucinations. I was interviewed for the show, along with Oliver Sacks and two other scientists, Diana Deutsch and Tim Griffiths. This was a particularly fun show for me; they gave me a lot of time to describe my experiences in detail. After I went deaf, I experienced round-the-clock musical hallucinations for three straight months until my first implant was activated in October 2001.

The cosmic rule: those who write get written about

My latest Technology Review article, Helping the Deaf Hear Music, came out today. This piece is about a new test, the Clinical Assessment of Music Perception (CAMP), that’s been developed by Jay Rubinstein and his colleagues at the University of Washington and the University of Iowa. It measures how well cochlear implant users hear the basic components of music: pitch, timbre, and melody. As it happens, I was one of the subjects in early trials of CAMP, and I talk about my experience in the piece. The highlight, though, is the extraordinary score posted by John Redden, a deaf musician: 100%. How John did it is still something of a mystery and, I hope, a portent of the future.

Just letting you know I’m still here

Dear readers, I’ve been running silent for a while because I had two deadlines last week, for Technology Review and The Journal of Life Sciences. I was also sick with a cold. But the stories will interest you, and I’ll post links to them when they come out. I’m enjoying life as a two-eared person and will be back to posting after a bit of a rest!

Visiting Google, and all that jazz

Windows is the operating system of the PC, but Google is quickly becoming the operating system of the world. I’ve found that I can’t write anymore without Google. I probably do five or six searches each hour, looking up various facts.

So I spent a good deal of today sniffing ’round the place. I had lunch with Jenn Shreve, a wonderfully creative writer who’s now working at their Mountain View campus. Eating in Google’s cafeteria is like living in a Star Trek post-cash economy of abundance. You don’t buy anything. You just take whatever you want. After lunch Jenn showed me a stunning display of a rotating earth showing, graphically, how many searches were going on around the globe in real time. It gave the impression of a planet glowing with data — although large parts of Africa and Asia were almost entirely dark. There’s still a long way to go.

Various bits of good news

Yesterday was an amazing day because I inked deals for three speaking engagements: one at my alma mater Brown, one at a government policy conference near Yellowstone Park in Montana, and one at the SV Life Sciences CEO Connections Summit in Key Biscayne, Florida. Details on these can be found on the Events page.

Also yesterday, Amazon posted a book I’ve been co-editing, titled “Educating Learning Technology Designers: Guiding and Inspiring Creators of Innovative Educational Tools.” It’ll be published by Routledge this summer.

A good Two-Eared Party

My Two-Eared Party was this Saturday, and about 25 people came despite it being a cold, rainy night.

My friends held forth on acts of subversion, the thrills & tribulations of L.A. journalism, the mysteries of Nepal, sleeping on the floors of bus stations while traveling through 48 states to document people in the act of reading, the challenges of living with another person, the secrets of localizing sounds from above and below, the secrets of managing faculty careers, gallery openings by gay deaf artists, unexpected bus-stop encounters decades ago, various novels, and five-month-old babies.

It’s coming from over there

I was walking up one of San Francisco’s many hills when I heard the shouting and laughing of children behind me.

Behind me? How did I know that?

Oh, right: I have two ears now.

I stopped and looked around. They sounded loud, and close. But I couldn’t see them.

Where were they?

I slowly pivoted in a circle to see what I heard in every direction. I had done this before with one ear, without success. Months ago, walking down Elizabeth Street , I had heard music on the air – perhaps a band practicing in a garage or backyard. It had sounded live, somehow. I’d stopped and looked around, trying to find it. But I couldn’t. The music was everywhere and nowhere at once. Placeless, undefined, omnipresent.


When I woke up on Monday my left ear – the one implanted since 2001 – sounded different. Gritty, hollow. My voice sounded remote and thin. When I moved a soda can on my coffee table, it made a tinny sound.

I pondered that as I brushed my teeth. Sometimes the ear abruptly sounds different, and it either slowly returns to “normal” or I adjust to it. I’ve never figured out why. I’ve learned not to worry about it.

But the timing was odd. I’d heard stories – just rumors, really – that when a person goes bilateral, the original ear gets worse for a while. Why, no one seems to know.

It’s alive!

This is going to be a quick entry, since I’m on deadline today. Notes from yesterday:

1. Out of sheer curiosity, I plugged my right hearing aid into my ear and found that it was working as well as it had before the surgery. It hadn’t been much of an ear, of course; all it could hear was footsteps, thumps on a table, and the remote, ghostlike echo of my own voice. But it could still hear those things now. The surgery does not seem to have damaged its few remaining hair cells.

Shopping around for vowels

So, on Day 3 after activating my other ear, here’s what I know so far:

1. The implant works. Good strong neural response to all electrodes.

2. It can understand speech when aided by reading cues, and it gets bits and pieces of uncued speech.

3. It helps a lot in noise.

So today I’ve been wondering why speech sounds so eerily real but not yet understandable, for the most part. I’m not impatient; it took weeks for me to get to this point with the other ear, back in 2001. Progress has been terrific. But it’s a neurological mystery. Today I’ve done some detective work.