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From Silence to Sound

What it’s really like to hear for the first time after growing up totally deaf

I didn’t hear a damn thing until I was six.

When my parents discovered my deafness when I was four months old, the audiologist told them that I was the deafest baby she had ever met. I didn’t react to even the loudest sounds, which were noted as no-reaction on my audiogram. The most powerful hearing aids did nothing, so I ended up feeding them to the dog (to my mother’s horror). My cochlea was the equivalent of an auditory black hole: sound just disappeared without as much as a blip registering in my mind. Contrary to popular belief, this sort of congential total deafness is rare. Most deaf people have some sensation of sound, just not enough to make sense of it. Not me, though. I could say that I had never known sound, not in the way most people did.

Sound in a Silent World

It wouldn’t be fair to say that I was totally ignorant of sound. The dimension that I understood was the one I could feel. It was in the rhythms and vibrations of the world around me. My mother’s footsteps thumped as she approached my room to catch me sneaking out of bed. Rock music at a live concert made the bones in my body reverberate in time to the beat. A loud noise slammed into my chest, almost as if someone had punched me. Others heard sound; I felt it. In a way, this relationship was more elemental. I understood sound for what it was: vibrations.

But there was that other part of sound that couldn’t be felt: the auditory part. People moved their lips and understood each other, even without looking. They did the same thing while holding something called a telephone and somehow understanding someone many miles — even thousands! — away. This seemed so absurd that I wondered whether the whole thing was some elaborate form of mind-reading. There was more I wasn’t privy to. How my parents knew someone was at the door (something I later realized was knocking). What squeaky and alto meant, I wasn’t exactly sure. This lent a certain mystique to sound. It was all around me, yet out of my reach.

People couldn’t stop talking about it either. “It’s so beautiful,” they told me, tears in their eyes. According to them, sound was beyond sublime. Birdsong brought grown men to their knees. The dulcet tones of children’s laughter united broken families. The rush of running water soothed the roughest of souls. By all accounts, sound was the second coming of Christ or chocolate-covered coconut cream cake, depending on your religious persuasion. “It’s so horribly sad,” the same people said, usually to my parents, “that she can’t hear.”

It never got through my head that I was supposed to be miserable. The way I figured it, hearing sound (or not) was just one of those funny little differences. Like there were blonds and brunettes, there were deaf and hearing people. Deaf people used Sign, a visual-spatial languageof the eyes instead of the auditory langauge of the ears. They got people’s attention by tapping people’s shoulders or stomping their feet instead of calling someone’s name. Their faces conveyed emotion with almost absurd levels of clarity instead of intonations. Deaf people lived in the visual world whereas the hearing lived in their auditory one. I belonged to the Deaf world thanks to the same quirk of fate that made me brunette. That was nothing to fret over.

Life is this simple at six. Too bad things get messier when you get older.

As content as I was in my silence, I couldn’t help being curious about what all of the fuss was about.

A chance to find out came in 1991 when something called a cochlear implants became available to children. This electromagnetic device functions as an artificial ear that stimulates the auditory nerve to create the sensation of sound. What we call “hearing” is the conversion of sound waves into electrical impulses, which the brain processes to give it meaning. Cochlear implants use microcomputers and electrodes to perform the conversion portion instead of vibrations and hair cells. This results in a digital rendering of sound governed by software and machinery. Digital or analog, this was the closest I would ever come to sound.

After the not-so-trivial matters of getting tested, obtaining insurance approval, and undergoing surgery, I became one of the first children to get this device. One of the first children to go from silence to sound thanks to a bionic ear.

My Brain On Sound

It was a cold winter day in 1991 when they turned on my cochlear implant for the first time. I sat in a small windowless room deep in the bowels of Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat hospital, tethered to a computer by a jumble of wires.

Pat, my audiologist, sat behind the computer that would send the signal for the electrodes to fire, my first impression of sound. Her lips moved in the shapes of the word Ready? It was go time.

What I was about to experience wasn’t sound as most people know it. Most people have roughly 3,500 hair cells to convert sound into electrical impulses whereas most modern cochlear implants have between 16 and 24 electrodes. The analog setup provides a finely textured representation of sound. The digital version? Not so much. I was about to get the grainy, low-definition version of others’ hi-fi sound. It’s good enough to undersatnd speech in a quiet environment and pick up on environmental sounds. I wasn’t in a position to be too picky.

My mother relayed Pat’s instructions in Sign, “Raise your hand when you hear something, all right?” This modest request flummoxed me. How could I know when I heard something if I had never done such a thing before? It was as if someone were asking me to find Waldo when I didn’t know what he looked like.

Always a brown-noser, I wanted to ace this test, even if I didn’t know the parameters. So I set to work finding this enigmatic sound-Waldo with every ounce of determination in my little six-year-old body. Every sensation became sharper, more palpable. An itch in my nose. An ache in my foot. A breeze on my cheek. It occurred to me that perhaps sound was an itch. Maybe birdsong was just a pleasant tickle in the sinuses. I raised my hand, full of hope that the itch was sound.

A crowd had gathered. Some were family. Others were strangers who wanted to witness a sensory awakening. (This was before YouTube, mind you.) I searched their expressions for any signs — reassurance — of whether I was acing or flunking the test. They all stared back blankly. As it turned out, they had no idea either. The signal for the electrode to fire was traveling from the computer to my ear by way of wires and a magnet. This sound — an atonal, flat beep of a single electrode firing — was all in my head. Literally. Only Pat knew, and she had a great poker face.

After twenty minutes of the guessing game, Pat smiled reassuringly. “That’s it for today. You’ll come back in a few weeks, and we’ll do this again.” She had set the stimulation levels low so not to overwhelm my nascent sense of sound. It would take multiple visits over the course of a year to reach its full range. At that point, I was getting a garbled version of the already-staticky digitized sound. Static atop static.

It was all over. My implant was now on, streaming sound into my brain. And I had no idea whether I was hearing anything.

I now know the truth. I was as deaf when I left the room as when I had entered. The electrodes were firing, but nothing was registering. Sound — or, more precisely, the impulses that my brain was supposed to interpret as sound — had hit a dead end somewhere.

My mother and I decided to salvage the day with a trip to the iconic toy store, FAO Schwartz. Buoyed by the thought of the wellspring of playthings, I dashed to the street corner.

Then it happened.

A tingling sensation pressed down near my right ear. It felt as if someone were poking the inside of my skull gently, but insistently. The feeling disappeared as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving me bewildered. There was no guessing this time. This sensation was so strange, so alien that it had to be something totally new. I had finally found sound-Waldo. But from where and from what, I had no idea.

When I told my mother, my hands bumbling in my haste to explain what I had felt, It took my mother a moment to realize what had happened. Her face lit up with happiness and relief. “It was a motorcycle! You heard it!” she told me, pointing at a spot behind me.

A motorcycle had peeled out a block away, probably one of those obnoxiously loud bikes that have more noise than power. The whole thing had happened in that dimension out of my reach. The bike had been out of sight and too far away for me to feel or smell anything. Somehow, the monstrous roar had broken through the dead end in my brain and registered. It wasn’t much of an impression, more tactile than aural. But something was shifting.

What was changing was my brain. I had been so deaf for so long that I had no neural pathways to process sound. So, I didn’t. Or, at least, I didn’t until the sound of the motorcycle triggered something in my brain to wake up a little, to acknowledge sound’s existence.

This phenomenon of the brain changing in response to external stimuli (such as sound) is called neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. The brain is the most pliable during the first three or four years of life (often called the sensitive period ), forming impotant neural connections for things like language, vision, and other developmental milestones easily and effortlessly. After these golden years, the brain’s pliability diminishes but doesn’t disappears. This makes the process of gaining something as momentous as a brand-new sense more laborious as you get older. Not impossible, but markedly more difficult adn less effective.

Since I was no spring chicken at six, I had to form the neural pathways for sound the hard way, my sense coming in bits and pieces. For the first few years, I continued to feel sound, although in a novel way. My name (KRIS-tee-NA) felt like a series of hills and valleys. A sharp crack felt like the spark when you strike a match. This odd synesthesia faded as my sense of sound normalized, becoming more auditory.

I still miss that synesthesia. It was reassuringly familiar, close to my old understanding of sound as thumps and rumbles.

Sound isn’t something you flip on like a light switch and presto! You have sound and undersatnd it. It is something you acclimate to, especially if you spent six years without it. There was a lot to learn.

What Nobody Tells You About Sound

People left out a lot when they told me about sound. They only extolled its virtues, omitting the less desirable parts.

Nobody told me how saturated the world is with sound. Everything made sound. Papers rustled when moved. Shoes shuffled. Traffic droned. The world hummed and buzzed with constant activity, a deluge of random sounds that was just …. Noise. Amid the din, those famously sublime sounds were scarce indeed. There were ten or a hundred more crows cawing for every bird trilling prettily. Perhaps it was their scarcity that made them so precious.

Nobody mentioned how anxiety-inducing sound is. As I became aware of the noise, I also became aware of how impolite it was to add to it. There were inappropriate sounds, such as overloud voices, flatulence, and snorting. Then there were acceptable sounds, which all required matching the environmental noise level as not to be too quiet (or too loud). Now that I could hear (and was older), others expected me to follow the rules of the auditory world. It didn’t matter that my sense of sound wasn’t as keen as others’s. Rules were rules, despite my occasional urge to rebel.

Nor did anyone think to mention how sound would thrust me into the middle of a heated ethical and cultural debate that would lead to a premature identity crisis. But that’s a story for a different day.

Since pediatric cochlear implants were still in its infancy, nobody quite knew how much work it would take for me to make sense of the noise. I ended up clocking in at nearly a decade’s worth of auditory training. I had to learn the logic of sound: why some sounds were louder than others; why some were important but not others; and how to translate speech into words. As I detangled the logic, sound became more enjoyable and far more useful. Speech went from this mystical form of mind-reading to an imperfect form of communication. My newfound command of this language enabled me to communicate with those who wouldn’t interact with me otherwise. Birdsong and children’s laughter went from mere abstractions to pleasant notes amid the din (but still not chocolate-covered coconut cream cake, damn it). Music went from gratifying reverberations in my chest to enjoyable rumbles with high and low notes.

As I delved into the world of sound, I discovered a beauty that nobody had told me about either: the beauty of silence.

The Idyll of Silence

Whenever the noise becomes too much, I can turn it off. All it takes is a press of a button. Or, even better, I remove my earpiece entirely. Sound is now off.

This silence is the most absolute that any human can experience, one beyond the best noise-canceling headphones or earplugs. It’s a tranquil state of being, as if I were at a deserted lake on a windless day: still and serene. I do my best thinking here, shielded from the noisy world. Tedious chores feel less onerous as the noises of the vacuum and clanking dishes don’t reach me. Here, I am free of the world’s grating noise. This is a sort of beauty that nobody speaks of or writes about because it’s out of their reach, just like sound once was for me.

If I had never known sound, I would never have known how idyllic my silence could be.

As blissful as silence is, it comes with a price. I feel … more detached from my surroundings. I leave the water running when I don’t pay attention (which is often). I am more often surprised when people approach me, or something falls downstairs. Those who don’t know Sign shy away from interacting with me, too self-conscious or too unwilling to bridge the gap between silence and sound. These reasons are why I turn on sound each morning, even as I sigh wistfully

Sound didn’t exactly live up to its hype. It’s wonderfully useful and occasionally enjoyable, yet it lets in a lot of noise and chaos. Silence turned out to be pretty nice, too.

Author’s Note. Although I use the word “hear” to refer to how I perceive sound, that’s not an accurate term. Since cochlear implants bypass the natural hearing process, we can’t properly call it hearing. Alas, we don’t have a more accurate term for what I experience, so I’m stuck with ‘hearing.’