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Understanding the excitement of hearing

I get a bit frustrated with the media when they show Ďamazing photosí of some small child supposedly hearing their motherís voice for the first time - smiling and being excited. Itís just not like that.

If the child gets excited itís because there is a new stimulus, not because they are hearing their motherís voice for the first time. They have no idea it is their motherís voice Ė nor can they understand anything she is saying because theyíve never heard it.

Why is this so? Imagine you are in Russia. You donít know the language and someone speaks to you. You may show surprise, even smile because the sound is pleasant, but youíll have no idea what is being said, and may not even know who the speaker was. This is a bit the same for someone when they are first switched on with a Cochlear Implant, be it a child or an adult. If you have never heard sound, then you donít suddenly understand it when you hear it for the first time. Like everything else you have to learn after birth, sound is one of them, and if a child has never heard then it cannot possibly understand what it is hearing.

Even if you have heard and then lose your hearing, you may lose the ability to understand the sound you now hear through a cochlear implant.

There are two reasons for this. The first, is you will have forgotten what some things sound like and you need to re-identify these sounds. But more importantly, the second reason is because when your brain is not stimulated with sound the neurons connecting your hearing nerve to the hearing brain centre die away. Without these connections there is simply no way you can understand the sound.

From personal experience, and from the experience of so many other cochlear implantees, when a cochlear implant is first switched on the sound is terrible. Most of us canít take too much volume (a bit like opening your eyes to a bright light first thing in the mornings) until our brains adapt.

However, our brains need to recognise the new connections and make sense of them. As one Cochlear Implantee reported (in a previous article) she hated her cochlear implant for four months Ė it took that long for her brain to make sense of what she was hearing. It wasnít quite that long for me, but I remember there was a sense of excitement because I could actually understand what I was hearing but it was coupled with a profound sense of disappointment because it all sounded so dreadful. My second implant was worse and it has taken two years for it to settle down.

It is a romantic idea put forward by the media that children get excited about hearing their motherís voice for the first time. It is exciting and it is wonderful that the child is now hearing but it will take time for them to learn to listen and understand what they are hearing.

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