Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remapped, With ClearVoice

In the flurry of life post-graduation, I admit that something important fell through the cracks of my priority list: my two-year follow-up remapping two weeks ago. Here's a belated report.

While in the midst of moving out, attending graduation parties and other on-campus events, seeing family, and saying goodbye to friends, I walked into my audiologist's office two Thursdays ago, sat down, and felt like the entire CI process had settled into well-worn routine, lacking the emotional energy and physical tension that I remember from my first few remappings. That fact struck me rather acutely in the waiting room: I remember two years ago, right after I got the CI, when my series of follow-up appointments defined the erratic pace of that summer like an ill-functioning and desperate metronome. Rattled and a bit unhappy at home, overwhelmed (even while fascinated) by all I was hearing, I looked forward to each appointment like a lifebuoy promising my progress at the end of the next bout of waves. If I could just grit it out to the next remapping, things would get better, sound better. And here, now, I hadn't had one of these remapping appointments for a year, and I was approaching it almost like an afterthought. I hoped the new program would help fill in some gaps I'd noticed in my speech perception. I was looking forward to trying out ClearVoice, Advanced Bionics' new processing software targeted at maximizing listening ability in noisy environments. But that was all. After it was all done, I slapped on my CI (routine; no more apprehensions or jolts from the roaring influx of noise) and walked out of the office.

So how did the appointment go? It went well. Few surprises. This is the stage I have reached. Apparently I've more or less stabilized in my mapping program, which is normal. My audiologist made a few changes, amping up some frequencies and reducing others, but the biggest tweak for the day was the addition of ClearVoice. In a nutshell, this software employs an algorithm to evaluate the levels and different types of background noise entering the CI via external microphone. Once certain types of noise reach a certain threshold, the software will dampen those sounds while attempting to preserve the incoming sounds that do matter – especially human voices. Background noise (and ongoing annoyance with background noise) continues to be one of my biggest daily listening challenges – I had heard varying reviews of ClearVoice, most of them good, and I'm not one to buy into much-publicized software upgrades as necessarily game-changing, but if it could help combat that onslaught of external noise, I couldn't wait to try it.

The listening booth test I had with my new ClearVoice program was the best I've had – though, mind you, I still say that with a grain of salt. I tossed back those routine testing words (baseball, hotdog, bluebird, ice cream, etc…) well enough, though my audiologist started introducing some complexity with rising and dropping levels of volume. Random open-set sentences and single words, I took a decent stab at. I would have liked to ask for repetition, and the word combinations my brain came up with were often silly and improbable, but for being with a thoroughly unfamiliar voice outside of any context I'm pleased that I didn't sit there completely at a loss! After this usual set of testing exercises, my audiologist reentered the room and apologized; he was going to ask me to do a new set of tests, which I'd never attempted before in my life and which were ridiculously hard. (Bring it on, I thought. Even if I totally fail, at least I've moved on from "baseball" and "bluebird.")

The first of these tests featured a series of recorded speakers, both male and female, saying sentences at very rapid speeds. After a few seconds' break to allow me to recite what I'd heard, the voices would barrel on with more breathless sentences. Talk about listening, mentally translating, and responding before preparing to do it all again! I was expecting to get absolutely nothing, but my brain came out willing to play, and fed me some (baffled and inaccurate) guesses that I passed along before being slammed again. The second test was, indeed, really ridiculously hard. It began with a male speaker saying a series of words and short sentences, in relative quiet. Then, progressively, an assortment of indistinct background voices would rise in volume, competing with the main speaker for my attention. I tried to cling to the main speaker as his words submerged beneath these invasive, rude voices. Come back! Inside my mind, I stepped back and watched myself head-on colliding with the overlapping sounds that, whatever I did, refused to separate into separate elements of a chemical compound. I felt schizophrenic – or, less melodramatically, like I do at large crowded parties. It was like listening to the garbled "wah wah wah" adult voice from Charles Schultz's Peanuts, trying to push it aside like a solid object, say a curtain, but watching it flood back like a stubborn liquid, like water. The exercise wasn't something I expected myself to be able to do in the least (and neither was the first), and I wrapped up my booth testing feeling bemused, once again, at what the typically hearing ear (and brain) can do. Separating all these different channels of auditory information, filtering out unnecessary information, telling the Charlie Brown voices to shut up. It's amazing.

But the weirdest part of the remapping this time? I walked out of that appointment, went to a few grad parties, and admittedly forgot all about my CI. The first few days after a remapping are always like the first few days after getting a new pair of glasses, for example: something's a little off in your sensory perception, and while you know the change makes the world sharper, better, it tosses you off balance until your brain adjusts. That feeling was there this time, but I succeeded in ignoring it. However, later on in the evening, at a big senior dinner event, I was sitting at a table with a group of friends when I noticed that the background noise had suddenly dimmed. I looked around, a bit startled. The activity was just as lively as before. People chatted, visited different tables, moved around. There was some music in the background. And when I spoke, my own voice jumped out at me, distinct from the mess. When I stopped talking, and when my friends immediately next to me stopped talking, it felt like being underwater. Was something wrong with my CI?

That's when it hit me. Oh. So this is ClearVoice. "Say something," I told the friend with whom I'd been talking. She raised an eyebrow, but complied. Her voice thrummed above the noise. "Now stop," I said. Her voice dropped off. Listening once again became like experiencing the world muffled by a wool cloth. Nearby voices in, out, as they spoke. Background intentionally quashed. A piece of computer software was manipulating the way I heard, choosing what was important and what was not, and while this felt strange and even disorienting it was also a little bit wonderful. ClearVoice had suppressed my real-life Charlie Brown wah-wah-wah noises, since I couldn't do so for myself, and a bit of the struggle to quash the distraction was gone. In the listening booth, I hadn't felt the program kick in so strongly; likely it'd been confused by all the competing voices, uncertain of what qualified as "noise" and what it should focus on. Maybe it hadn't had enough time to recalibrate. But at that party, I walked around surreally feeling like I'd gotten in touch with another aspect of how normal hearing might work. The cocktail party effect, in my grasp at last – or to an extent. When people spoke, I felt like I really, truly heard their voices standing alone.

Now, two weeks later, the rough edges of my remapping have smoothened, new sounds have popped out like always, old sounds take on renewed texture and interest – all this is normal, but I haven't yet felt ClearVoice kick in as strongly as that first night. I tend to structure my life to avoid excessive noise, but in the future I suppose I'll need to seek it out! I'm tempted to stop at this point in my post and muse about the nature of being bionic, the nature of physically feeling that computer interface step in between me and my world, but that'll need to wait for another time.

And, two years! (Literally, tomorrow, two years to the day that I got turned on. Wheeeeee.)

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