Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Cochlear implants are true cyborg technology. They stimulate the auditory nerve of deaf individuals to allow them to interact with the sounds of the world again–although those new sounds are at first alien and foreign. A few months back I posted here about Michael Chorost, a science writer and recipient of a cochlear implant, who wrote a terrific piece about his quest to experience his favorite piece of music, “Bolero,” once again. We made contact after that, and Michael was kind enough to send me his book, which I read as well as my friend who researches new applications for cochlear implants. She reviews Michael’s book “Rebuilt,” below.

Rebuilt by Michael Chorost
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A popular question when trying to start a pseudo-intellectual conversation is whether you would rather lose your sense of hearing or sense of sight. Almost invariably, the answer would be to retain one’s sight; it seems people are more worried about being able to drive alone than hearing a fire alarm. I personally believe that the sense of hearing is so intuitive that most people don’t understand how truly important it is – it cannot be easily turned off like sight can. Or, as Michael Chorost points out in his book Rebuilt, “the sense of hearing immerses you in the world as no other.” Chorost’s book is subtitled How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, and presents an intriguing first-person look at the human side of cochlear implantation. Those without personal experience with cochlear implants should not feel at a loss, or that this book is not for them – Chorost writes clearly and provides enough detail to make the implant, the speech processing, and his problems and adjustments plain enough for anyone to understand. I am a graduate student doing research on cochlear implants, and so was interested in this book when Shelley mentioned it to me, because I thought Chorost could present a viewpoint that I am not able experience, but which would be critical to my work. And he did. Chorost clearly makes a distinction between himself, whom he calls a cyborg, and other humans, and at the beginning of the book tries very hard to set himself apart from others (deaf or not) with both his hearing loss and his implantation. He then discusses the adjustment period and difficulties he had with the implant, and concludes the book with some thoughts about how human-like the cyborg had become. Chorost’s writing style includes the extensive use of personal stories, similes, and correlations with literature and culture in order to help provide a better understanding of his experiences. For example, there is an excellent description of the awkwardness Chorost felt when dealing with the implant, its external hardware, and nakedness for the first time. This is something that I would not have thought about, but which is obviously a major issue for implant users. This type of anecdote demonstrates Chorost’s writing at its best. Unfortunately, the book tends to sidetrack into Chorost’s personal philosophies more than I expected. In particular, there is a chapter that discusses the discord in the Deaf community between those who choose cochlear implants (and verbal languages) and those who choose sign languages. While I agree that this is an important issue that most people outside of the Deaf community are not aware of, in the context of this book, Chorost’s opinions on the subject seem disjointed and forced. Outside of this chapter, however, the book does offer an interesting look at one man’s experiences with a cochlear implant, as well as a great deal of insight into the lives of a small but significant population.

Verdict: Recommended! Buy from Amazon, here.

Comments

  1. #1 Kurt
    January 30, 2008

    There was an interesting story on NPR yesterday, which included interviews with Oliver Sacks and a patient of his whom he had described in his book Musicophilia. The patient had cochlear implants done in an effort to combat auditory hallucinations she began having after losing her hearing. The story also has brief simulation of what music sounds like through an implant, with its limited frequency range.

  2. #2 Alvaro
    January 30, 2008

    What is very interesting is that Michael Merzenich, one of the UCSF researchers involved in developing the first cochlear implants, is now focused on developing cognitive training software to improve auditory processing, for the benefit of the many of us who won’t need an implant but yet will benefit from better processing as we age.

  3. #3 The Flying Trilobite
    January 30, 2008

    About 12 years ago, I was in a relationship with a deaf person. I learned ASL and would hang out with students in the Rochester Institute for Technology. And I remember some deaf students behaving very poorly toward people with cochlear implants. Basically, it was like a social shunning, like the people were out of fashion.

    I haven’t read this book, but I’d bet the feelings it arose in the author were enough to try and include the conflict in the book, even if it was noticeably disjointed and forced.