On becoming a cyborg

First: the backstory. I'm slowly going deaf. No one knows why. First doctor blamed rock'n'roll.  Next one blamed my genetics. I'm still waiting for video games and teen sex to be indicted. They all agree that it's irreversible.  Just shitty luck.  Today I went to have some phones fitted - something I've been putting off for quite a few years.

The audiologist has a soft face and clean,  nimble hands.  His examination room is a brightly-lit white cube buried in a North London basement with a soundproof isolation chamber in the corner like a phonebox you'd go into to avoid speaking to someone.  On his desk is a laptop and an anonymous block of proprietary hardware with a pop-up speaker.  Cables snake across the desk to the isolation booth and back again.  We did the whole isolation chamber thing last time. Result was the same as it was five years ago: my ears are remarkably, irreparably, buggered.

The doc takes out two drops of beige (Christ, why does it have to be beige?) plastic and flicks open the battery tray.  He plugs two slender orange ribbons into the battery tray. As he does, the beige lumps squawk out in  protest, like little birds.  The orange ribbons plug into two more wires that lead into the laptop.  Then he pulls out another device, a fat black coathanger bent into a serifed U, like the doctor's end of a stethoscope.   I can see is going to hang from my head in some way.  It has two thumb drives which will eventually sit around the same height as my ears.  Each of the thumb drives gets threaded with a plastic whisker at one end and a PS/2 cable at the other, which leads into the speakerbox.  The speaker box starts to squelch at the coathanger, a continuous gargling note that starts low and blindly feels its way higher, higher, higher.  I imagine a plastic loudspeaker is shimmying out of the ground somewhere to announce that it's "time for tubby bye bye".

When it's done gargling, I take a seat in front of the speakerbox, the stethoscope hanging from my head. The machine starts spitting white noise at me, tsshh! tsshh! tsshh!, like channel hopping on a detuned TV.  It uses the stethoscope to listen to itself, to hear what I hear.  It seems pleased with the result.  The doc picks up the little phones and they warble and whistle as he cradles them in his hand.  The little songbirds join the stethoscope in my ears.  The pulses of static start again, and the noise is loud. My face twitches involuntarily.  I close my eyes and wish that I could close my ears. Tsshh! tsshh! TSSHH! To distract myself, I try to keep track of the nested layers of bugging going on in the room. I can hear the machine with my cloth ears. The songbirds also listen to the machine and tell me what they hear. The stethoscope eavesdrops on the birds and tells the machine what they said. I listen to all of this and get a headache.  Somewhere behind me the nurse scatters ball bearings on a metal tray.  Above us, a canvas sail rasps as it slides endlessly over the room.  Everything is saturated in reverb.

"How does it sound?"

"Like we're sitting in a tin can."

"Good, then they're working perfectly."

The doc tells me I have to retrain my brain to hear sound properly.  For too long, everything I hear has been wrapped up in velvet, and now my internal equaliser is out of whack.   His words jangle like chain links thrown on a tin roof.  He asks his assistant to show me how to use the phones.  When she talks, there's a tiny delay between the velvet sound from my ears and the metallic commentary from the songbirds. At least I think there is. It's hard to tell. My brain is struggling to assimilate the two versions of events that it hears.  It decides instead that I am listening to two different rooms somehow superimposed on eachother in 3D space, like a double image on a TV screen.  The doc's room is a collapsed hypercube. I'm aurally tuned to the fourth dimension.  The two nurses give me a fistful of batteries, a manual, a case for each of the phones, and some blue plastic wire to clean them which looks identical to the blue plastic wire the other doctor here used last week to stitch up a hole he'd cut in me.  And just like that, I'm discharged.

As I creep with trepidation through the clinic, pens click, feet tap, machines beep, doors click, and all these sounds chase me like gravel pouring down a metal flume.  The door opens and we all land on  the street outside, opposite a small park.  The first thing I hear is birdsong. Not the fretful whistling of my phones, but real, genuine birdsong. I don't remember hearing that when I went in.  I can hear thousands of leaves nudge against each other softly in the breeze. Above it all, that mysterious canvas sail is still being pulled along.  I don't know what it is.  The wind? Distant traffic? Some white noise artifact of the phones? It sounds like the collective sigh of the city, like the blue sky rasping softly as it rolls westward over the horizon.  A cyclist goes past, chain ticking.  I walk toward Highbury and Islington tube station.

The noise of the busy street outside the station is disorientating. I can hear snatches of conversation at distances I'm not used to, so I keep glancing over my shoulder to avoid walking into people who, it turns out, are safely well behind me.  The entrance to the station is a Victorian cotton mill, an absolute cacophony of automatic gates cracking open and shut, cards slapping on turnstiles, machines bleeping, receipts tearing.  I hurry past all this and into the subway tunnel.  I hear more noises I can't place. Someone is clapping, perhaps just around the corner of the tunnel.  On the platform, the train announces its arrival with sound layered on sound, a rushing wave that crashes over  me when it's still at a distance before I realise I'm listening to the train pulling in on the opposite platform.  The rails under the train on my side start to yelp and warble like power lines, a sound that continues as I'm buffeted by the wind onboard.  I figure out that it is the wind, rushing over the songbirds in my ears and driving them a little mad.  I step off the train and walk toward the exit. I hear a heavy suitcase thumping down the stairs behind me, in front of me, but it's just footfall.  Further down the tunnel, I follow a repetitive click click click like fingers snapping. I never find the source of the noise.

All the sounds I've been missing out on have become unfamiliar objects in my ears.  My brain weighs them and turns them over and inspects them, but doesn't know what they are.  I guess it misattributes some of them, which accounts for the phantom noises, and leaves the rest unlabelled.  The accumulated weight of this miscellaneous noise starts to wear me down.  It's a constant orchestra of unknowable sound above my head.  I try covering my ears but that makes the songbirds squeal.  I resist the urge to tear them out.  I wonder if parts of my brain were liberated by the lack of sensory input and are now being press-ganged back into service by the electric songbirds in my ears, because I feel mentally exhausted and slightly nauseous.   I want to call in to work sick.  I decide to sit in a park for a few minutes to rest.

Someone has let a bored teenager into the Foley artist's suite of my mind. My shoes ring like milk bottles on the paving stones. I kick a leaf and it makes a sound like a crisp packet. Birds tweet obscenely.  They swoop from tree to tree and I can hear the tips of their wings pressing together.  A man on the other side of the park pops the lid of a soft drink with a rifle crack.  Above it all, the strange sighing rasp is still there, breaking waves of an ocean suspended above me.  I reach up and pull out the songbirds.  The ocean above me collapses instantly, crashes down as cotton wool, insulates me from all that unnecessary noise.  Silence presses in on me.  I feel swaddled and safe again.

I pull the little silver disc hearts out of my songbirds so they'll sleep quietly inside their case.  The doc says the more I wear the phones, the quicker my brain will adjust.  I can't say I'm eager to get started.



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Hi Frank, just delurking to tell you how moving I found your post, and to encourage you to keep trying. My own sensory overload, last year, was joyful in contrast. Prescription sunglasses. The natural world exists in 3 dimensions, not just clouds, but layers of clouds! If you persist you will rediscover the world of sound!

Hi Frank,

Great article, sorry to hear about your progressive hearing loss.

Picking up on clues in the text it would appear you've been fitted with a pair of Siemens aids which are ... ok. They certainly don't need to be beige, there's a wide array of colours available in most manufacturers range of aids.

With regards to the fitting it sounds like the audiologist was using an older type of test signal, we tend to use something called ISTS these days which sounds like a UNESCO party, I.e. a broad range of European languages in short snatches. This tends to give a better representation of the long-term average speech spectrum (LTASS) which more closely represents daily conversation. Additionally as this was not used I suspect an older gain algorithm was used. The latest in NAL-NL2 which tends to give greater clarity but a more comfortable first fitting.

All that said do stick with it as fMRI studies show it takes approximately 3 months for the neocortex to process the corrected auditory stimuli effectively. You might also find auditory retraining programs helpful in making the most of your residual hearing, e.g. LACE or LIsN.

You also appear to have selected slimtube style aids, receiver in the ear give a much better frequency response. Most manufacturers offer Assistive Listening Devices such as remote mics which significantly improve signal to noise ratio's when for example clipped to the lapel of a conversation partner in a busy restaurant.

Hope some of this is helpful and you adapt well to your new aids.

Kind Regards,


By Tim Husband (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

Cheers Tim, interesting to hear about other phones - but 'selected' is the wrong word. Unless I part with £1,500+, the NHS gets to dictate what I wear, and in the Henry Ford spirit I can have them any colour I like - as long as it's beige. ;D

Looking forward to the day when I'll be able to hack my phones to provide breaking news via public wifi, listen to geomagnetic storms, and generally build myself an augmented reality soundscape. Right now I have to settle for tin shed world.

My mother lost her hearing as a result of an accident during WW2, she was a telegraphist, progressively losing more and more, until in her 50s she could hear nothing without her hearing aids.She is 92 and says 'Conversation is what matters, practice using them for that and you will feel the benefit'
I remember also when my son had his glue ear treated (at 5) and spent the first night wide awake petrified by radiators gurgling, floorboards creaking, saying to me as he sat up rigid with fear in the dark 'hearing better is too scary for me, can you turn it off?'
Thank you for writing so well about this experience, please tell us more when you can
Best wishes

By Buff Davis (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

Thank you for that interesting insight Frank.
My own velvet haze was lifted a few years ago when fitted with glasses to correct my short sightedness. Suddenly the world was sharp and pointy. I fell over several times in the first few days as my brain interpreted the extra distance in my vision as though I was walking on stilts.
I am thankful that my sight has since not got any worse and now can't imagine how I did anything without my glasses.
I hope things get easier for you! Keep us updated!

By Skeptikitty (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

I appreciate private aids are expensive but you may find that once you've given the NHS aids a good trial if they fail to meet your needs funding may be available through the Access to Work scheme.

You would need to demonstrate that aspects of your work require a more effective device. For example if you routinely conduct interviews in areas with a high background noise...

A2W will normally require a report confirming your difficulty from your audiologist then two or three quotes from dispensers.

I've been through the process a number of times in my previous NHS role.



By Tim Husband (not verified) on 27 Jul 2012 #permalink

Excellent post Frank, good luck with your new cyborg equipment. Good old NHS

Anyone interested in writing about disability, disability awareness or the disabled in a science setting is invited to contribute to the August Diversity in Science blog carnival, which will have a disability theme. Details are on the announcement post:


(My apologies for hijacking this for an advertisement, but I trust you'll see it as being for a good cause! Oh, BTW: I'm deaf/hard-of-hearing myself, from birth. "Rubella kid" and all that.)