Written on the Occasion of a Bionic Upgrade

Some pithy musings and lessons learned, as I prepare to get a cochlear implant device upgrade later today:

It’s been seven years, and this prosthetic device has molded itself into my body, my nerve circuitry, and my psychology. The boundaries of my body, as I now know it, are no longer pure flesh: truly, my body, how I hear and make sense of the world, is now part machine. I know this is encapsulated in the word “cyborg,” but the concept still astonishes me at times. On the occasions when my current cochlear implant has died, for hours but sometimes for a few days, I feel like part of my body is gone. But it’s not my body, not really. It’s a piece of metal in my skull. Yet, my brain persists in telling me, this once-unfamiliar sound is now me, it’s now part of me. This machine, this box of sound, has traveled the world with me.

At the same time, this unique capability – to be able to switch back and forth between sound and silence – is still something I savor. I still like silence. No, given the right circumstances, I love it. I still crave it at the end of each day, when I am alone. It brings me back to myself, ensconced inside my mind, in tune with how my body feels, how it moves and sees and how my heart beats.

I no longer feel like I need to reconcile these parts of myself. It’s possible to have both: sound and silence. To know that beneath the machine’s pulsating waves of sound, there is still silence. That is still there, a deep calm at the core of my being.

Sensory experience is messy. It always changes. Maybe there’s no such thing as stable hearing, no such thing as perfect hearing, even if we still tend to idealize (or oversimplify) those concepts. “Hearing” as a sensory norm is something our culture takes as a given, but truly many different hearings exist. What I hear isn’t at all what you hear, whoever you are, and I’m constantly aware of that – but I think this with a spirit of awe and sustained curiosity, and not out of self-comparison.

I’ve experienced several of those disparate, wildly different, evolving hearings. Everything I hear is mediated by that great mass of my brain, calculating and making sense of what the machine gives me. This interpretation always changes; new neural networks constantly spring up and form. Something rustles, rumbles, stands out to me today that didn’t yesterday. Evidence that on a neurological level, I am not the same person as I was yesterday. New meanings have arisen. I am aware, in a way that I wasn’t seven years ago, of my own capacity to learn, to shift and change and discover new dimensions to the world, while reflecting upon where a deeper sense of self lies. I’m more comfortable with change. I have to be.

Every time the implant upgrades, or gets a new map, I feel myself thrown back into flux. This instability, I know, will pass. I’ve seen it often enough by now, the marvels of my own brain’s plasticity and persistence. Yet I wonder what exactly happens in that black box, to make sense of the chaos, each time I place my auditory nerves under a fresh assault. Yes, “assault”: for there is no denying the violence that the cochlear implant can enact upon one’s senses and one’s self, even as it welcomes one into a world of newly engineered prosthetic sound. There is no denying that the cochlear implant sometimes doesn’t feel good. Overstimulation is real, and silence is still better, at times. The difficulty of talking about this auditory experience, neither in terms of over-sentimentalized “medical miracle” nor in terms of invasive destruction, still fascinates me. I am still deaf, and yet I hear. What exactly does that mean? It may seem like a paradox, but there it is. I am still in between, in flux. But in the last seven years, I’ve become more okay with that.

Here’s to the latest technology, and to whatever I hear in weeks ahead. (Or don’t. That’s also fine with me.)