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'Rebuilt': Learning to Hear Again


Michael Chorost's mother caught rubella when she was pregnant with him. The disease, commonly known as German measles, damaged his inner ear, his cochlea. Michael experienced substantial hearing loss as a child and young adult. Four years ago, when he was 36, Michael Chorost completely lost his hearing. The little hairs in his inner ear, which sense sound waves and trigger messages to the brain, had died. Chorost decided to have a cochlear implant, embedding a small computer chip in his skull. He's written an account of the surgery and how he adapted to all that it brought to his life. It's called "Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human." When I spoke to Michael Chorost last week, I asked him to describe what happened when the cochlear implant was finally activated.

Mr. MICHAEL CHOROST (Author, "Rebuilt"): What happened was that I heard gibberish. And that was because the implant was stimulating my auditory nerve endings in a way that's very different from the way a normal ear works. So one of the things that I try to convey in my book is what it's like to have a computer controlling a part of your body. So the software is making decisions about what I heard in every millisecond, and my brain had no idea how to interpret that.

KAST: Let's play some sound of a sentence and then how that sentence would have sounded to you. `I like to play tennis.'

Unidentified Computerized Voice: I like to play tennis.

KAST: So that second thing we heard, is that how things were sounding to you at that point in your life?

Mr. CHOROST: It sounded worse than that the day that I was activated because I had no neurocircuitry for understanding that kind of input. So it sounded like static.

KAST: And how did it change over time?

Mr. CHOROST: It's like trying to read text with half of the letters whited out. It's something that you can do, but it takes concentration and it takes effort. So I had to practice hearing. And now four years post-activation, I'm understanding you with no difficulty. That's because I've learned how to interpret an incomplete signal.

KAST: Some of the parts of the book that resonated with me were when you talked about your frustration at having to guess what people were saying. And I had this sense that part of your growth was kind of embracing that as opposed to resenting it. At one point, you said believing it was part of your ability to do it. Once you believed you could understand people, you got better at doing it.

Mr. CHOROST: You know, some people do resist it and they do push back against it because it doesn't sound right, it doesn't sound normal, it doesn't sound real. I did make a conscious decision to embrace it.

KAST: You put a lot of emphasis on the word `cyborg' since you are one. You should define it for us and tell us what kind of baggage that word carries for you.

Mr. CHOROST: It has all sorts of baggage. It's one of those words that everyone defines differently. Many people take that word from the "Terminator" movies, where a cyborg is essentially an emotionless killer robot with some organic elements. Some people react very negatively to the word `cyborg' because they think that it implies demonization.

For me, I needed a word that characterized what kind of body I had now, and the only word even halfway fit was the word `cyborg.' I didn't feel like the Terminator, but a part of my body was controlled by a machine. So in the book, I wanted to define for myself what the word means to me. And what it means to me now is--it means having a body that is editable, having a body that can be rewritten and revised with software.

KAST: Is it a good thing?

Mr. CHOROST: It's a very good thing. I would be totally deaf otherwise. Now I could have chosen to go into the signing deaf community, but I've always defined myself as a hearing person and the technology gave the opportunity to choose to go in that direction.

KAST: How does it compare to that you remember hearing back when you had hearing of your own?

Mr. CHOROST: Those auditory memories are now four years old, so I've been hearing only through a computer for the last four years. So there's a piece that I use as my touchstone, it's "Bolero," and I'm very familiar with that piece. And with the 16-channel software, which I used for two years, "Bolero" sounded very flat, very dull, very pale. With the new software, it has more of the intensity that I remember. The flutes sound clearer and higher pitched; the bassoons and the oboes sound richer and fuller. So it's satisfying again. I can get the feeling of the narrative, the emotion, the passion. So whether it's the same as what I heard with hearing aids for many years, it's hard for me to answer that question. But what I can say is that it restores the sense of thrill and the sense of pleasure that I got from listening to it through hearing aids.

KAST: Michael Chorost's new book is "Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human," published by Houghton Mifflin.

(Soundbite of "Bolero") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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