Getting cochlear implants is often described as a ‘miracle’ or a ‘gift.’ For the parents of a deaf child that grows up hearing with cochlear implants, it might certainly seem that way. But for those who have once enjoyed natural hearing and then experienced hearing loss, the journey back to hearing is often different.
It is a huge emotional relief to hear again after profound silence, knowing that your cochlear implants are working, that sound is once again being transmitted to your brain. However, for some recipients, this is followed by disappointment, as they realise that what they can hear is not immediately the same, natural sound that was once familiar and easy to understand. For everyone it’s different, but people often say that voices sound robotic, digital, mechanical, artificial, like Mickey Mouse even! And the world is noisier than they remember – there are a dozen different sounds all at once, confusing and muddled, distracting them from the important things they want to hear.
It’s easy to think that the answer is to adjust the sound processor. However, re-learning to hear is more like an infant or young child learning to hear and understand for the first time. Your brain needs experience to adjust to the ‘sound messages’ it is receiving and to learn what those inputs mean. If you previously had hearing, your brain needs time to remember what voices, birdsong, music and so forth sounded like and to learn that this is again what is being heard.
It can be tiring and it can take several times of hearing something for your brain to adapt. You will need to persist in listening with your sound processor for your brain to gradually adjust and remember. Over time, this will happen; it is simply a different skill that you will learn and, the more you practise, the sooner you will master it.
Start by listening to simple and familiar sounds or voices in a place where there is no distracting background noise. Relax and focus on what you can hear and understand, listening several times if necessary. Explain the process to family and friends so they will help you by repeating things for you to re-learn subtle differences between similar words.
You can learn to enjoy music in the same way. Often it is the subtle nuances or ‘architecture’ of the music that is lost, especially for people who hear only on one side. Again, begin with something that is simple, familiar and melodic. Each time you listen, you will hear more and gradually your brain will seem to ‘fill in’ the missing pieces as it adapts and learns what new sound signals mean. Your memory of things like the way a guitar sounds different to a piano, will gradually return as you listen more often. Many people also find that listening to music helps to develop their abilities to understand speech.
If you would like to read books by other people who have experienced hearing loss and learned to hear again with cochlear implants, Shouting Won’t Help by Katherine Boulton and Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst are two that we have enjoyed. Cochlear employee, Kate, also wrote movingly about her memories of learning to hear after she received her first implant in 2009 when she needed to learn to hear bilaterally after getting a second implant in 2016.
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