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RebuiltReview - Rebuilt
My Journey Back to the Hearing World
by Michael Chorost
Mariner Books, 2005
Review by Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D.
Nov 28th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 48)

First things first. The subtitle is wrong. This book is not about a journey back to the world of normal hearing. What it is about is the process of learning how to "hear" in a completely novel way, as you have to when damaged organic structures are replaced by electronic ones: when, in fact, you become a sensory cyborg.

Michael Chorost was hearing impaired from childhood, but at the age of 36 a viral infection reduced his residual hearing to almost zero. With his hearing aids no longer adequate for the life he had built, he elected to have a cochlear implant. A CI is a complex device that converts soundwaves into electrical impulses (like a conventional hearing aid) and then into computer code to trigger the auditory nerves directly via a microelectrode array implanted in the cochlea. In the first chapter, Chorost outlines his position starkly: he is worried not just about whether the implant will work (and thus allow him to go back to something like his former life), but what it will be like, experientially, to become part-computer. The implant "really is a computer. It's cold, angular and digital, yet it's going to be embedded in my flesh, which is warm, squishy and wet...The computer would decide what I heard and how I heard it...It would be the sole mediator between the auditory world and myself. Since I would hear nothing but what its software allowed, the computer's control over my hearing would be complete." (p. 8)

In the following chapters Chorost describes the surgery, his physical recovery, the activation of the implant (when he is switched on), and the tortuous process of learning -- often this means observing his brain learning -- how to hear again. Here, although the book's structure and overt theme are conventional enough, it is far more than the standard tale of uplifting triumph over physical catastrophe. For one thing, Chorost is an endearingly genuine techie: he got his PhD for writing an award-winning program, and he once had what he describes as an "elegant, productive addiction" to computers. He is therefore ideally placed to observe, and to explain as best he can, his growing awareness of his bilateral kinship with the digital as well as organic modes of being. In a key chapter, Forget About Reality, he describes how being able to flip between two different versions of implant software meant he could experience corporeally and directly the theory that our notion of "reality" is contingent on our sensory systems. "In 1740 David Hume had argued that the senses give us only interpretations of reality, leaving us -- in the end -- completely ignorant of what reality actually is...Hume would have loved the idea of cochlear implants: sense organs that can be told to think anything." But Chorost, from his own experience, is able to show that irrespective of the philosophical intrigue of the idea, the lived reality is more problematic: "…Hume didn't have to live his theories... All I knew 'for certain' was how two completely different kinds of software interpreted the world. It was driving me crazy" (p. 74), crazy in part because he needs to feel he is hearing the world the way it really is, but at the same time realises that he never can.

No one reading this book can fail to be impressed by the power of neural plasticity, the brain's capacity to adapt to lost limbs or wrecked neural pathways or, as in this case, to take a brand new language of sensory input and turn it into something meaningful. (In fact, to turn it into something as close as possible to what was there before. Neural plasticity is, paradoxically, a highly conservative process. As Chorost puts it, "I knew what my own voice was supposed to sound like, and by God, my brain was going to hear it that way; to hell with whatever nerves were actually being stimulated." p. 87) What must have been a frustratingly lengthy process for Chorost can seem amazingly rapid to the reader: 24 hours after activation, for example, he has regained the ability to perceive women's voices as higher pitched than men's, not because they "really" sound like that, but because his brain knows they must sound like that.

But it gradually becomes clear from Chorost's account that his journey of adaptation involves other things than the straightforward (if you can call it that) repatterning of neurons. He recognizes where higher order functions, conscious choices come into play too: not just where it's obvious -- deciding to practice at interpreting noises, for example -- but through more subtle maneuvers such as consciously relinquishing the notion that what he was hearing was either a reflection of reality, or that it would sound much like everything he had been used to. "Forget about reality….I would have to give up the expectation that it would truly feel like hearing, and learn to use the implant as a tool that would enable me to do something which resembled hearing. It would not be hearing. It would just be equivalent to hearing." (p. 79)

It's the fact that most of the book is constructed around this revolution in attitude that makes the Journey Back to the Hearing World schtick of the paperback title so puzzling. Chorost is doing his level best to demonstrate that whatever a cochlear implant gives it's not the restoration of hearing, not as the hearing world knows it anyway. Intriguingly, the hardback edition's subtitle is very different: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. You can't help noticing how much better it reflects what he's trying to say, and wonder who it was thought the buying public would find human/computer hybrids a little too challenging and decided to opt for the safer narrative of normalization.

This is not just an irritation about book marketing. It is part and parcel of the profound ethical questions raised by cochlear implants, and especially their use in children. Chorost is aware of the resistance that many parts of the signing Deaf world feel towards CIs. It is undeniable that when hearing impaired children of hearing parents are implanted, they are unlikely then to go on to acquire sign in the Deaf Schools and Clubs as they once did. (The situation is not the same for CI-implanted, hearing impaired children of d/Deaf parents, who face different issues.) Even without going so far as to describe this as deliberate cultural genocide, there should be more unease than there seems to be about the way CIs are culturally and commercially positioned as bionic ears. To hearing parents made desperate by the news that their child is deaf, and who may also find the Deaf world frighteningly alien, this is going to sound like the promise that their child will be able to hear "normally". As Chorost knows, this is an illusion. The CI does not restore hearing; it replaces it "with an entirely new system that [has] entirely new rules". The hidden ethical question here is to what extent that illusion is encouraged by the financial stake of the CI industry.

Not everyone will agree with Chorost's analysis of his existential predicament, just as not everyone will be as gripped as Chorost himself understandably is by the subplot on the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his love life. None of this detracts from the book's immense value to anyone with an interest in cochlear implants, disability, or the phenomenology of perception, or who simply wants an unusual insight into the ongoing entanglement of human embodiment and machines.

 

2006 Jackie Leach Scully

 

Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D., School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, United Kingdom


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