Friday, September 30, 2005

Auditory Dilemma

So, I went back to Neverland (aka the NYU Cochlear Implant Center) yesterday to have Michael Jackson remap my implant. Thing was set too dang loud. Everybody sounded like they were shouting and keyboard strokes sounded like gunshots. When a bus drove past my brain exploded in six million pieces. My ear was ringing like a broken fire alarm. Unsurprisingly, I had a headache. This regrettable situation stemmed from a simple yet intractable phrase.

“Tell me when the sound is loud but comfortable” Mr. Jackson had said during the mapping on Tuesday.

I tried to oblige him, failing to say what came to mind: how can a sound be loud but comfortable? If it’s loud, it’s not comfortable. If it’s comfortable, it’s not loud. You can’t have both, so, unsure of what to do, I went for loud.

Yesterday, at the remapping, I opted to voice my concerns.

“Tell me when the sound is loud but comfortable,” said Mr. Jackson again.

“Mike, Look,” I explained. “Loud and comfortable are diametrically opposing forces, repelling each other like differently charged subatomic particles, and like said particles, cannot occupy the same spatial location. Even from the standpoint of intelligent design, if that’s your prerogative because I don’t want to offend, light and darkness, sound and no sound, loud and comfortable, were set in opposition 456,003 Mondays ago and cannot occupy the same Godspace without catapulting the universe into disarray. Ergo, cogito et sum. If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit. You feelin me?”

Michael nodded. “I have an idea.”

Then he did something. Which he explained like this (and forgive me if I confuse you, because I myself am confused): there are two ways to increase the size of the electric pulses that the implant sends to the auditory nerve. The more straightforward way is to increase the height of the pulses – the higher the louder. But the other way, the midnight genius fourth-dimensional way, is to increase the width of the pulses. More sound, but not more loudness. All this is besides that megahertz business I've been going on about.

“So you’re increasing the width of sound?” I was flabbergasted.
“Sort of,” Mike answered. “Hello, hello, hello, hello…How’s that?”
“Huh. It’s loud,” I said. “But comfortable.”
He slammed his fist on the desk. “Do not mock my powers!” he yelled.

Actually, he didn’t say that. And actually it’s still tilted towards the loudish axis, as the concept of loud but comfortable still confuses me. And actually (a triple actually!) my head cold yesterday was in the midst of developing into a full body smackdown which today has me pining for that one great thing that salves all wounds: ma’s chicken soup. But it’s better. It’s trial and error. Lesson of the day: don’t browbeat your auditory nerve.

So it’s not all single malt and puppy dogs. Greenland is melting. It’s cool that I can hear everyone in the library computer room typing, but I can see it getting real annoying…right about now. I’m about ready to crawl to bed until Sunday. And I have to wait four weeks for the next mapping session to get dialed back (I’m definitely going for comfortable then). I emailed Sam and the two of us commiserated.

Sammy’s also going through a tough spot, stuck between a hard rock and a space. It’s difficult to get acclimated to the implant if you’re wearing a hearing aid in the other ear, but Sam can’t keep up his business responsibilities without his hearing aid. He’s been having some difficulty with ringing in the ear as well, and, with mixed success, has been working with his audiologist to figure out which electrode is the culprit. In addition, last weekend, the quarterback of our favorite football team faded back to pass and then threw his right arm into the stands. There go our hopes for the Superbowl.

On the other hand, Sam's girlfriend’s extremely cool – loud, but comfortable. It tends to even out like that. I’ll see how it is when I wake up.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved your riff on Loud But Comfortable. Here's the dang thing: not only are the two ideas incompatible, but your own ideas of what "Loud" and "Comfortable" mean change *during* the mapping session.

Thing is, you get better at it. You just do.

Mike C.

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought of another thing. The reason it's so hard to say whether the sound is "loud" is that you're not hearing the way you've heard before. You're not evaluating the acoustic decibel level of a sound vibration. You're evaluating the amperage of an electrical pulse. It sort of feels like hearing, but it's not the same thing. My reaction -- I actually said something like this to my audiologist -- was, "Well, it's a stronger sensation than that other beep, but would I call it LOUD? Gee, I don't know."

Shows how fundamentally the process messes with your epistemology. You just don't know what the word "loud" means anymore.

I got better at it, by trial and error. "Well, I said these sensations were 'loud' before but things sounded too soft when the program went live. So I guess that's not loud. I'll call that beep...waitaminute...waitaminute...okay, I'll call THAT beep 'loud' this time."

Really, four years after activation, I still don't know what Loud and Comfortable mean to me. I just know that good things happen when I say "Loud" when I feel certain kinds of sensations.

One other thing: I found that when I feel my eardrum flexing, that's Loud and Uncomfortable. When the eardrum flexes, that means the stimulation is triggering a stapedius reflex, where a tiny muscle attached to the eardrum contracts in an attempt to protect the cochlea. Stapedius reflex. It's not actually uncomfortable, but it still equals Loud and Uncomfortable.

Should have thought of all this when I was writing the book.

I'm posting anonymously 'cause I'm in NJ and not using my own computer.

Mike Chorost

7:51 PM  
Blogger Josh said...


Good points, though I wonder about your distinction between sound and electrical pulse. If it all is subjective perception, and if the auditory nerve is that easily fooled, seems like it is sound. To put it another way, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...can't we safely call it duck? Them taste good too.

7:02 PM  

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