Monday, July 5, 2010

Grow, Brain, Grow

I have reverted to my childhood. Well, sort of. With each day that goes by, it becomes clearer to me that my CI ear is a baby ear, and that I must treat it accordingly. This means several things:

1. Not expecting it to sound like the natural hearing in my right ear, either in smoothness or coherence
2. Teaching it everything - and I mean everything - about the world, step by step
3. Being willing to accept and explore the surprises it discovers along the way

It's day seven, and I have made tremendous progress since the electric-shock feeling of first being turned on. I'm hearing much more, the sounds are more dynamic and complex than their initial one-dimensional jolts, and I'm having an easier time making connections between what's happening around me and what I'm hearing. However, I still have a long way to go. Environmental sounds still sound staticky and mechanical, and the sound quality with my CI is sorely lacking - though the sound quantity isn't! Being a perfectionist, and being used to my world sounding and feeling just so, this irritating robotic-noise soup is hard for me to handle.

That said, I did not expect the first weeks with my CI to be easy. Now is where the real work starts. Beginning with children's books! I checked out four books on tape from the public library last week, sat down with my sister's boom box, and proceeded to listen to them until the entire house was probably begging for me to stop. I can now practically recite Goodnight Moon by heart - not that that's an accomplishment! (It's amazing how much longer and more exciting these books seemed when I was young.) I've scoped out the territory, though: children's books on tape tend to be fraught with music, background noises, and corresponding sound effects. That's all very well for getting hearing kids excited about reading, but for me it's obnoxious and not at all helpful! Having a real live person read to me is better - now if only those pages wouldn't crackle when I turn them.

I'm hoping to progress to beginning chapter books and novels - actual novels! - soon, but it depends on how quickly my brain grows those nerve connections. To boost the expansion of my auditory cortex, I've been working on a variety of other exercises. I recruit unsuspecting family members and have them read three or four words to me at random while I try and piece together how on earth the noises emitting from their throats are connected. It's easiest to start with words with different syllable numbers - for instance, banana and corn - but I've been able to progress to a set of, say, four one-syllable words. Harder even is words that have very similar sounds, or words that only differ by a single phoneme. Advanced Bionics has a downloadable computer module, as well, that has similar exercises in flashcard form. I sit in my room for hours at a time, listening to the computer say "shoe" over and over again. (Most discouraging was the realization that, while I'm currently only getting 3 out of 5 correct answers with my CI, my score with my right hearing aid alone is a perfect 5/5! Although I guess I do have 20 more years of practice with that ear...)

The sounds are not at all like what I hear with hearing aids. They're louder and more distinctive, and I hear more of them, but as of now they make no sense. Only my knowledge of phonetics, gained from 18 years of speech therapy and even an introductory linguistics class in college, has allowed me to make any kind of progress. I guess by process of deduction: the noise at the end of that word was especially sharp and explosive, so it must be a stop. Or, that was a high-frequency buzz, so it's some kind of fricative or sibilant. It's a taxing intellectual process. I have no idea how other congenitally deaf people could handle it without a prior history of speech therapy. Astonishingly, though, I've discovered that I'm now hearing all of the sounds in a word, sharp and individual, whereas before I only heard some of them - and often left off sounds at the end of a word as a result. The CI is giving me all of the pieces, as fragmented as they currently are. The problem is putting those pieces together into a whole.

Other exercises I've done: distinguishing between higher and lower notes on the piano, which I find surprisingly easy. Listening for the doorbell versus a knock at the front door - something which drives both my dogs insane! Distinguishing between male and female voices. Contrary to before my CI, I now find that female voices sound clearer and more intelligible (I've always preferred those deep bass male voices, having very little residual high-frequency hearing). Listening to even more music. The vocals and other instruments are coming through now, wheezy and staticky, not just the beat. Listening to two minimal-pair words and distinguishing whether they're the same or different. Taking walks or just sitting somewhere and having someone point out the various noises in the environment. (New discoveries: the clock ticking, my dog panting, water running from the faucet, myself chewing or swallowing, someone dropping something or making a noise from across the room.) My baby ear is growing!


  1. Rachel, thank you for putting an eloquent voice to this experience. I work with families who have a deaf child and are considering a cochlear implant for their young child. They have many questions that you address in your blog entries and so I will be sharing your blog as it provides valuable insights.
    By the way, if you are currently in Albuquerque I would like to get in contact with you.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you've enjoyed what I've written so far, and I hope it's somehow useful for families and/or others with CIs. Yes, I am currently in Albuquerque and will be for the rest of the summer. Feel free to email me at


  3. I would read to you! I get practice reading at the Children's Hospital- last week I read "Huevos verdes con jamon" (Green Eggs and Ham) in my terrible Spanish accent to a little boy :) Plus, I love Goodnight, Moon!