Cochlear implant simulations

Perhaps you have tried listening to various cochlear implant simulations, and wondered if they are what a cochlear implant user really hears. Well, the short answer is, no it isn’t a good representation. Hot patootie! – that is NOT what we hear!

Such simulations don’t take into account of what your brain hears and factors into the sound equation. When you are first activated, you may not hear sounds represented as you would expect. Some users report speech as sounding robotic, or like Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, but this effect decreases substantially after a while. Even if what is heard doesn’t sound completely natural, the brain will arrive at a point where it will interpret sound as being the new ‘normal’.

Here’s an interesting video where a young woman with a cochlear implant in one ear, and normal hearing in the other, compares variations in sound processing through the implant to her normal ear.

Check out Michael Chorost’s article on hearing pitches in music;

Most people with normal hearing can tell the difference between pitches that are 1.1 semitones apart. (A semitone is the smallest pitch interval in Western music.)  But a 2002 study at the University of Iowa found that most implant users can only distinguish pitches when they are at least 7.6 semitones apart.

As you listen more and give your brain practice in adjusting to incoming sounds, your ability to discriminate improves. In time, speech and music will sound better, until they sound much closer to normal. Your auditory memory will tell your brain what sounds used to be like, and you will draw on those memories to improve what you hear. After a while, your brain becomes used to hearing sound this way, and it becomes the ‘new normal.’ There is no point comparing your progress to someone else’s as we are all different, with different memories, brains, and auditory experiences. It’s not a competition. You will improve at your own pace.

When you put on a pair of colored sunglasses, everything takes on the tint of the lenses.  After just a short time, you don’t notice the tint any more.  Your brain has decided that it is seeing the ‘new normal.’  In fact, when you remove the sunglasses, you briefly perceive everything as tinted opposite the lens color, because your vision system has adapted to the sunglasses!  And so it is with cochlear implants.  While the sound may be unnatural at first, after a while it tends to sound much more natural.

The most important message to take from this is that your attitude matters. Set your expectations low and your hopes high. You can achieve good quality hearing, not 100% normal hearing, but good quality hearing nonetheless. Your hearing will improve with more practice. Be sure to check out the rehabilitation page for some ideas.