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August 8, 2005

Kelley: Hearing loss brings good attitude adjustment

From: Ventura County Star - Ventura county,CA,USA - Aug 8, 2005

By Beverly Kelley
August 8, 2005

William James once wrote, "Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives."

That observation certainly proved true with Michael Chorost, a researcher from Silicon Valley, who, in 2001, after a viral infection, descended, all at once, into a world of deafening silence. Chorost, severely hearing-impaired since birth, did not immediately panic. When no amount of tinkering with his hearing aids produced improvement, however, and a specialist confirmed the change was permanent, he sunk into a deep depression.

Yet, Chorost ultimately managed to rocket his way out -- he's been "rebuilt" by means of a cochlear implant.

While it's been only four decades since scientists first endeavored to restore normal hearing by electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve, according to FDA data, some 13,000 American adults and nearly 10,000 children have since received cochlear implants.

The technological equivalent of a 286 computer inserted just above the left ear, the implant works like an electrical switching station, translating sound waves into electrical impulses, and channeling them to the nerve endings of the inner ear. By bypassing the thousands of tiny hairs with which a person of normal hearing perceives sound, the miniature mechanism digitally transmits input to, at most, 16 electrodes connected to the cochlear nerves.

Now 16 electrodes doesn't give you the same fidelity that Mother Nature serves up via thousands of hair-like sound receptors. If you are interested in hearing an actual demonstration of limited channel input, point your internet browser to

In the world of the cochlear implant wearer, potato chips chink rather than crunch, flushing toilets seem to detonate, and conversations take on the muffled mushiness of underwater speech -- especially the overlapping chatter at cocktail parties. Implants, likewise, blur distinctions between male and female voices and fail to provide clues as to whether sounds are coming from near or far.

The total cost of a cochlear implant (including evaluation, surgery, the device, and rehabilitation) averages around $40,000, but then we're not just talking about installing some high-end hearing aid -- this is Six Million Dollar Man sort of stuff.

Not only must technicians spend hours fine-tuning the mechanism so that the right nerves are stimulated at the right time, but the patient must also adjust. He or she must be able to make aural sense out of the unfamiliar and sometimes puzzling information provided by spanking-new neural pathways. In a very real way, the brain of a cochlear implant wearer is reprogrammed by the technology.

Try this little experiment -- imagine playing bridge with a deck in which all the clubs and spades are red and all the diamonds and hearts are black. At first, you feel decidedly disoriented but, after a while, your mind bends to the new reality. That is, if you manage to marshal the willpower to persevere instead of merely saying "to hell with it!"

In his article "Cochlear Implants: Restoring Hearing to the Deaf," Michael L. Pierschalla counsels, "When we talk about the loss of one of our senses or abilities, we talk almost exclusively in the language of accommodations, adaptation and acceptance. Faced with this sort of challenge, our concept of healing and recovery often takes on a new meaning -- one that is focused on a spiritual and psychological, rather than a physical, recovery. If we can no longer expect to join nerves back together, then we try instead to reconfigure the soul and the self."

"Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human" is Chorost's account of reconfiguring his soul and self. The book combines both a memoir and a philosophical discussion on the nature of perception, the human brain, and the essence of humanity.

"My hearing had not been restored," Chorost writes, "it had been replaced with an entirely new system that had entirely new rules. I would have to become emotionally open to what I heard, instead of fighting against it."

Chorost draws on examples from his dating life, his work in educational technology, his friendships, and his writing group to illustrate how he transformed the outer aspects of his life by adjusting the inner attitudes of his mind.

"My bionic hearing made me more human," he concluded, "because I was constantly aware that my perception of the universe was provisional, the result of human decisions that would be revised time and again. It was my task as a human being to strive to connect ever more complexly and deeply with the people and places of my life."

Now, isn't that the kind of attitude adjustment that we all could -- but more importantly -- should make?

-- Beverly Kelley, who writes every other Monday for The Star, is an author ("Reelpolitik" and "Reelpolitik II") and professor in the Communication Department at California Lutheran University. Her e-mail address is Visit weblog.

Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.