Noe Valley Voice July-August 2005

Michael Chorost Tells Us What Bionic Hearing Feels Like

By Laura McHale Holland

If the world hands you lemons, make lemonade, the old saying goes. And that's what Alvarado Street resident Michael Chorost did after his life changed swiftly and irrevocably on July 7, 2001, the day he went completely deaf.

Within hours of realizing his one good ear was dying and that his best chance to hear again would be to become bionic, Chorost started thinking about writing about his experiences. The result, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, was published in June by Houghton Mifflin Company. The book recounts Chorost's computer-aided odyssey from silence to sound, and from extreme loss to great adventure.

Chorost was born with severe hearing loss in both ears because his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant with him in 1964. (Rubella is now rare in the U.S., following the introduction of a vaccine in 1969.)

During Chorost's childhood, hearing aids enabled him to hear well enough to acquire nearly normal speech and hearing abilities. But over time, his right ear gradually lost its hearing capacity. Still, he compensated with his left ear. Then, while on a business trip to Lake Tahoe when he was 36 years old, he inexplicably and rapidly began to lose the hearing in his left ear.

In his book, he describes returning to his rental car agency with the last of his hearing almost gone. The agency was closed. A yellow arrow pointed to a telephone. He spoke to someone on the phone, explained that he was deaf, told the person where he was, and asked that a cab be sent. He heard only faint, unintelligible sounds, but thought the last noise was the sss sound in yes.

"I hang up praying that all the phonic baggage trailing that one syllable was not yes, but it will take an hour, or yes, but you have to call this other number, or yes, we will send a cab right away, sir, if you would just say again where you are.

"I stand there and wait, clutching the tow handle of my suitcase as the sun pivots and falls, as appalled by the enormity of the parking lot as a castaway who has just watched his last message in a bottle drift out of sight," he writes.

Only two months later, Chorost had a cochlear implant installed. Now, two computers are his constant companions, feeding him signals that he translates into intelligible sounds. One is in the cochlear implant, residing in his skull. (The cover of his book shows the computer, roughly the size of a quarter, embedded in his skull above and behind his left ear.)

The second computer, a speech processor clipped to his belt, converts sound into a stream of data that is sent by radio to the surgically implanted computer. A magnetic headpiece, worn externally on his head, sticks to the implant through his skin and is the interface between the two computers. This trio provides Chorost a prosthetic form of hearing by stimulating nerves in his cochlea (the inner ear's organ of hearing). The stimulation is accomplished through a string of electrodes, which are part of the implant curled up inside the cochlea.

"It's not perfect, but now, almost four years after I was 'activated,' I can use the phone and radio almost effortlessly, as long as I have a clear signal and not too much competing noise," he says.

Speech sounds fairly clear to him, but a little surreal. "I get more low-frequency information with the implant than I did with my hearing aids, so things sound deeper to me, even hollow and rumbly at times," he observes.

In addition to a deeper world of sound, Chorost says his new hardware gives him bragging rights to the appellation cyborg--a term meaning someone who is part human and part robot.

But his interest in the fusion of humans and machines goes back to long before he lost his hearing. "Science fiction talks about cyborgs all the time. You have Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man. You have the Borgs from Star Trek. I grew up watching these depictions of combinations of humans and machines, and I always wondered what it felt like to be a cyborg," he recalls.

His book, which is both serious and funny, tries to pin down his new feelings.

"When I went deaf, I realized that I would have to become part computer/part human, so I wanted to write a book about what it was like to have part of my body controlled by a computer. I wanted to capture that experience, and I wanted to compare it to how science fiction has portrayed the experience."

Chorost has found that science fiction is almost entirely wrong in its depictions. "I think that science fiction expresses a deeply held fear that many people have that technology will dehumanize us. That's why it portrays cyborgs as emotionless robots or monsters. It's absurd on the face of it, and yet people just seem to believe it."

In fact, technology has enabled him to be even more human. "For me, it was the programmability of the implant that was humanizing because my software could be changed at my request, allowing me to make thoughtful choices about how my body perceived the world. I was able to choose how I wanted to hear and what I wanted to hear, and that was a fascinating process. It was literally a process of rebuilding myself. When you give a person control of their body and their world, they can't help growing to take advantage of those opportunities."

He has also acquired a more flexible perspective. "I had been very insistent on hearing the world in only one way, through hearing aids. But the implant completely changed how my ear worked. I had to be more accepting of other ways to perceive the world. That was very much a growing experience, being less rigid about the way I thought the world should behave."

Chorost acknowledges that when his body broke down, it brought his life to a halt. But rather than succumb to self-pity, he interpreted the loss as a chance to rethink his future. He had been enjoying his work as a technical writer for SRI International, but he wasn't passionate about it. "When I went deaf, I was actually thinking I might be able to get a book out of this while I was flying back from Tahoe, because I knew that, whatever happened, I was in for a profound change. So the process of getting a cochlear implant and writing about it gave me the chance to do what I really love doing, which is science writing. I'm now living the life I've always dreamed of having," he says.

Seven months after he got his implant, he had a book deal. Not only that, but three publishers competed for the rights, which meant the book went to auction. "It's a great thing. I was phenomenally fortunate because when you have houses bidding against each other, that usually gets you a better deal. Houghton Mifflin had an editor that I really liked, and they made a good offer, so my agent and I chose to go with them," he says.

Five months ago, Chorost moved to Noe Valley from Silicon Valley (Redwood City), another step in living the life of his dreams. He had been driving to San Francisco three times a week to go to writers' events and to meet friends. "I figured I'd rather be here than there, and I really liked the Noe Valley neighborhood, all the stores and restaurants. Most of all, I liked what I call the 'bump-in factor.' Every time I walk down 24th Street, I bump into somebody I know."

Since moving in, he's been gradually filling up his apartment with new furniture. He's also been listening to the wind rustling through the trees, the birds singing outside his window, and his two cats Elvis and Friday meowing in frustration at not being able to catch those birds.

He has an office in his home, but he has also found a cubicle at the Sanchez Annex of the Grotto, a community of writers and filmmakers founded in 1994. "Much of my book is about a search for community, and I like the prospect of a greater sense of belonging in Noe Valley and at the Grotto," he notes.

Part of his summer, however, will be spent visiting other communities, from New York to Seattle, for his book's promotional tour. His San Francisco reading will be at Books, Inc., in Laurel Village, 3515 California Street, on Wednesday, July 13, at 7 p.m.

So far, the reception has been very positive. Publishers Weekly dubbed Rebuilt a "beautifully written debut." In June, Chorost was featured in the New York Times as well as interviewed on KQED-FM's Forum with Michael Krasny.

"One of my hopes is that the book will inspire young people who are interested in science and engineering and medicine to understand how much can be done for people who are deaf or blind or have other impairments, how much exciting research there is out there, and how many incredible things can be done to help situations that nobody has been able to do anything about for thousands of years.

"Fifteen years ago, if you went totally deaf, there wasn't much that could be done for you. But yesterday, I was sitting with a music producer in his studio, and we were listening to various pieces of music together, and talking about them. That's revolutionary."


Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer
Made Me More Human

By Michael Chorost

To celebrate my new ear, I go out to buy my first possible CD player. I want to play my familiar old CDs as a way of mapping my new auditory world onto my old one. Knowing how Bolero sounds--or, at any rate, did sound through hearing aids and cochleas missing most of their hair cells--will help me reconnect to reality, whatever exactly that is these days.

I start by going to Radio Shack to get a patch cable. This will enable me to connect the CD player directly to the processor. I am greeted immediately by a young, attentive, and expressionless employee.

"What can I do for you?"

"I'd like to get a patch cable to connect to a CD player," I say.

"You're connecting it to a speaker?" he asks.

I hesitate. How do I explain this? I point to the processor at my waist, and then to the back of my head. "This is a bionic ear. The patch cable will go in here. Then the sound will go into my head."

He simply nods and turns to the cables on the wall. I'm a little befuddled. Maybe he has customers walking into the store all the time asking how to plug things into themselves. He picks out a cable and hands it to me.

"Can I try this out first?" I say. "I want to make sure it works."

He rustles up a CD player from the display case and slides a disc into it. I peek at the label. It's country and western. He keeps the player in his hands, which unnerves me a little because I don't know what the heck is going to happen. I entertain a brief vision of a searing pain in my head, followed by both me and my credit card dropping limply to the floor. Killed by George Strait.

Reprinted with permission of author. Copyright q2005 Houghton Mifflin Company.