One for the Nerds

Hello nerds, it’s me, Andreas. You are my people. That’s who this post is for, but if you’re not a nerd please read on – you’re still going to learn a bit about me and a lot about sound, hearing loss, and cochlear implants. I’m going to skew toward the conceptual because the serious hard core nerds are looking this stuff up before I can write about it anyway – no need to get bogged down in specifics.  Moderate nerdism is what I’m talking about. “Ectomorph Temperans Nerdicus” is on the crest.

You see, it’s one thing for a loved one be evaluated, confirmed as a candidate, and preparation for surgery progress. There are so many milestones that it’s easy for a nerd to get a grip on not just what is happening, but to understand how it all comes together. There’s actual research that suggests nerds are nerdy not because of pencil protectors and computer games, but because their curiosity utterly supercedes any fear of failure. They’ll explore, test, examine and learn until they’re satisfied they have a complete grip on the question at hand. This means I want to SEE, TOUCH, EXAMINE, PLAY WITH, and generally get my head completely around what the cochlear implant and processor technology is, how it’s being used and what it’s doing.

Even the language is a little different in the program here. Candidates” are people who ARE getting an implant, versus someone who has been recommended for evaluation. It’s weird nomenclature but I didn’t write the guidebook on that. If I did candidates would be proto-cyborgs, and then just cyborg or”borg” for short. “Cochlear implant patient” is just so 1986 (with apologies to Dr. Grame Clark).

As a nerd, I have a lot of technical questions about the implant. This isn’t out of a overblown sense of competency or anything. I just want to know how the audio is processed. I recently switched to a new studio production tool (PreSonus Studio One 3.5.2) and it includes a whack of analysis and metering tools that that are inadvertently helping me understand what Caroline hears, compared to what normal hearers hear. I have some digital instruments that employ different audio processing (like granular synthesis) that sounds remarkably like cochlear implant audio I’ve been able to find online. That’s just one nerdy thing I’m curious about.

Audio is audio. We’re all working with moving air…unless you have a cochlear implant. Then the moving air is out of the loop once it hits the sound processor (hearing aid). At that point it’s all electrons. Electrons in the processor computing the sound, electrons transmitting through the skin to the implant, and those electrons traveling down the implant to the cochlea, sparking the auditory nerve and your brain lights up with “SOUND!”  It’s almost exactly the same processor in my studio computer. The only difference is that my studio audio goes to speaker or headphones, not a nerve. So, it occurred to me that I had a bunch of ways to SHOW Caroline what I hear. It’s all physics – if we know the math we can recreate it. The only difference is the size of computer. Not surprisingly, Caroline’s processor is the most sophisticated real-time audio processing unit on the planet. There isn’t a single piece of audio gear in any recording studio dedicated to real-time audio processes than Caroline’s Kanso implant. If that doesn’t throw you into a full five-alarm-red-flag-klaxon-howling-bang-on-a-garbage-can-nerd-alert, nothing can.

Caroline and my studio production software also have something in common: the implant is a permanent thing. Caroline for the rest of her life. It’s been on our minds a lot lately BECAUSE of my studio software issues. For me, it’s a problem solved. For Caroline the same problem would be devastating. And it’s an issue that will be with us for Caroline’s entire life. And if that isn’t enough of a teaser, then you’ll just have to listen to episode 5.

At the end of yesterday’s podcast Caroline wanted to do a demonstration to show just what NOT hearing things is like. She did a little object lesson with a little crystal Christmas tree bell. She ran the bell “open” so it would ring. Then she rang it closed. If you’re like me and have normal hearing, you hear “tik tik tik tik.” It’s a clear difference. Everyone gets that but the deaf. What you can’t see in studio is Caroline’s expression of amazement that they sound the same. Release the Nerd! What struck me was that it’s easy to reproduce Caroline’s hearing loss in the studio: turn down the volume. We’re going to do another demonstration of what Caroline hears. Ironically the only way for you to hear what she hears is for me to crank the volume. It’ll make sense when you hear it. We’ll have that demonstration during Caroline’s “quiet” post-surgical recovery.

Sound is a quirky thing. In the studio, silence is your canvas, and sound is the paint. You’ll probably notice an evolution of sound of the podcast itself. There are a few good reasons for this. The first episode was a hasty production. We’d just gotten the news that Caroline was approved and would receive a cochlear implant. We were so excited and flabbergasted that it took us three hours to record the first fifteen minute episode – we said things that were too revealing, inappropriate, and for a lot of that first episode, in spite of being in a studio, we forgot it was a podcast and we just talked about what a cochlear implant means for our future. I was in a hurry to get the first podcast out; I took some shortcuts which compromised the quality of the audio. The audio is “gated” (it sounds like it’s switching on and off, which it is). In short, I apologize for the crappy sound early on. It should be better now.

It’s ironic that we’re producing a podcast about hearing impairment, deafness, hearing health, and cochlear implants. The audience with the most appreciation for it can’t hear it and we don’t have the resources to provide transcripts to deaf/HoH listeners. That said, Caroline wanted to do the podcast for people who have normal hearing, or THINK they have normal hearing. That second part is especially important because only a fraction of people (barely 20%) who need medical intervention for their hearing (hearing aids or surgery) don’t get it. Usually that’s because they don’t know they’re struggling to hear.

Caroline describes being hearing impaired like needing glasses not wearing them. Most people with glasses have the experience of “look at the leaves,” the first time they put them on. They’re astonished by the detail they’ve been missing but didn’t know they were missing. It’s exactly like that with hearing: low rumbles are high energy so they’re audible, high frequencies are less energy so they seem to disappear first. The solution: just go for a hearing test. If you’re struggling, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll find out you can get help.

This afternoon we’re going to sit down and talk with Caroline’s audiologist, Greg Nedelec at Living Sounds. The first part of the discussion is going to be what to do about Caroline’s left hearing aid. It might be an orphan after the surgery – and Cochlear is in cahoots with ReSound hearing aids. They make a hearing aid that will talk/work hand-in-hand with Caroline’s implant from Cochlear. We’re also going to interview him for the podcast. It’ll be a wide-ranging interview we’ll use over the next several weeks. Greg has been Caroline’s audiologist for nearly twenty (20) years, so he knows her hearing as well as anyone.

In the meantime, eight days to surgery. We’re stalking up on fluffy pillows, a movie watch list, popcorn, and over-the-counter pain relief.