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How do voices sound with a Cochlear implant?

“Do the voices sound like a robot, or are they just as how people that are not deaf hear them?”
That’s a really good question one that I think is asked frequently and the answer is misunderstood so I will try to explain.

I had normal hearing for about 20-25 years and then went slowly deaf over 10 years. So I know and remember what voices sound like. Then for about 20 years I had no hearing and couldn’t even hear myself speak. Then I had a Cochlear implant. After the operation had to wait for the wound to heal before my implant was switched on and my external Cochlear speech processor programmed. The audiologist programs the processor by playing a tone and I have to tell him when I can first hear it. Then I have to say how loud I can bear that sound. I hadn’t heard anything at all in that ear for 30 years I couldn’t bear much volume at first.

Once I was programmed my processor was switched on so I could pick up the sounds in the environment and the voices of the people around me. It was very strange. Immediately I could hear and understand speech (amazing moment after 20 years of deafness!) …but as you suggest it did sound robotic or metallic in quality. I had never heard my husband speak and he sounded like a woman. My daughter sounded like Donald Duck quacking. BUT…this poor quality of sound didn’t last.

The reason it is robotic at first is twofold:
1. all the neurons connecting my cochlea to the hearing nerve have atrophied because they aren’t being used and these needed to regenerate once they are being stimulated again
2. the electrodes on the Cochlear Implant cannot reach into the very tiny channel in the cochlea where deep sound is heard, so without the deep sounds voices sound tinny or robotic

However, our brains are amazing and after time, the plasticity in our brains means we regrow the neurons to stimulate the hearing nerve, but more importantly our brain learns to interpret the new stimulus even the deep sounds.

For me the robotic or metallic quality of sound lasted at most a couple of weeks. During this time my brain learnt how to interpret the new stimulus and voices took on the timbre I remembered. Now after 12 years of hearing this way everything sounds the way it should and the way I remember it.

So to answer the question “do the voices sound like a robot, or are they just as how people that are not deaf hear them?”

People who are not deaf cannot hear what we hear. They can’t listen through our processors like they could through a hearing aid because they don’t have the internal part of the implant. If they could, then I suspect they would have a similar experience to mine.

To sum up. Voices do NOT sound like a robot for me, nor is it a quality of sound which I became used to and which now seems normal. My reason for saying this is an experience I had about two months after I was switched on. A friend phoned for me at the office. My receptionist took the call but my caller would not give her a name. So when I answered all I knew was it was a female friend who said “Do you know who this is?” I asked her to say a little more and she replied “I haven’t talked to you by phone for 20 years.” This didn’t help me much because I hadn’t talked to anyone by phone for that long. However, I was able to say “Well I think you are Joanne,” and it was. I hadn’t even seen her for 10 years or more because she lives on the other side of Australia so it wasn’t like I was used to the sound of her voice either by phone or in person.

This experience tells me that what I hear now must be very close to what I heard before because otherwise I couldn’t have identified her from just a few words over the telephone. The sound I hear is very similar to what any hearing person hears.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Felicity Bleckly. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Felicity Bleckly. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Felicity Bleckly for details.


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