Bionic Hearing: Hearing Through the Buzz

The term "bionic" is defined by Oxford Languages as "having artificial body parts, especially electromechanical ones." In today's episode, we learn about a new type of hearing aid that converts everyday sounds into a series of unique vibrations. Our guest, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, explains how our brains begin to "hear" these vibrations through a process called "sensory substitution". We also talk to cochlear implant wearer Richard Pocker, to learn about challenges of understanding sound again after a prolonged period of near-total deafness.

Bionic Hearing: Hearing Through the Buzz

Neuroscientist, Dr. David Eagleman, explains how our brains begin to "hear" vibrations through sensory substitution. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions by clicking on the three small dots.

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Podcast transcript

Steve Taddei: Have you ever been faced with adversity, an unexpected challenge, or a decision that seemed to have a big impact on your future? Let's face it. We've all been there, but take a moment and think about the last time this happened to you. You think of one?

Now imagine if you could go back in time and give yourself advice and the wisdom you wish you would have had then. It probably would have saved you at least a little stress and helped some of those sleepless nights. Sometimes the answers seemed obvious and after the matter, all we needed to know was what questions to ask. After all hindsight is 20/20.

This is what many people go through when they're first diagnosed with hearing loss. It's often frightening, unchartered territory, and there are so many questions.

Steve Taddei: Wouldn't it be great to have a mentor hold your hand and guide you through it all. Well, this is exactly what Richard Pocker is doing.

Richard Pocker: No two hearing losses are alike. Unique as our fingerprints. I'm dealing with candidates. I'm dealing with recipients. I'm on at least a dozen cochlear implant and hard of hearing websites to move them off the fence. That's my mission.

Steve Taddei: Over the past five years, Richard has helped guide hundreds of people through the process of coming to terms with hearing loss, considering implantation, learning about coping mechanisms and technologies. And in general, figuring out how best to navigate their current situation.

Richard Pocker: Sometimes it's a matter of holding a person's hand. For instance, there was a woman I was introduced to in Mississippi. She had zero hearing in one ear, 4% in the other ear, and the doctor wanted to operate on the so-called good ear. It took one year for her to make a decision to move forward. I must've exchanged hundreds of emails with her during that time.

And I just listened. I cannot force somebody's hand. People have to remember. There's no guarantee that a cochlear implant's gonna work, but the good news is the vast, vast, vast majority will.

Steve Taddei: We've spoken about cochlear implants before, and we know it's a big decision because it involves surgery. There's also no going back once you've been implanted and there's no way to guarantee a person's outcome.

Aside from these medical concerns that people face, Richard has found that there are often other considerations in the social realm.

Richard Pocker: This woman was more concerned about whether her ... I think the child was very young, less than a year old, whether that child would be accepted in society wearing a cochlear implant.

And you have to understand whether they're going to be rejected because of wearing this or rejected cause their deaf. She took a few months to make a decision. She did it. And they're the happiest mother daughter I've ever seen in my life.

I was mentoring a guy in Ireland who definitely was a candidate, needed the cochlear implant, afraid to get it because his children would be bullied. And that's another nuance you have to deal with.

So it's a learning process. Sometimes I've worked with people for six months. And they decide, no, we're not going to do it. You cannot get a cochlear implant until you're ready to be successful. I like to tell people its the journey, its not a race.

Steve Taddei: When speaking with people who have hearing loss, you learn quickly that everyone's experiences are unique. There's really no one size fits all approach. So you may be wondering, how did Richard gain the wisdom and know-how to mentor people like this? Well, Richard has dealt with hearing problems most of his life. He's gone through the process of wearing hearing aids, and even receiving surgery for bilateral, or two, cochlear implants.

Richard Pocker: I had a progressive loss from the time I was seven when I had Scarlet fever at five. And then when I was 30, I had a sudden collapse of all my hearing within a month. So I went totally deaf ... and I had that issue for 35 years.

For all those years I was deaf, I was in retail. I want to tell you that was tough. When you're in retail and you can't function fully, trust me, customers have no patience. They just don't. They have no reason to, they expect full service. And if you're not there a hundred percent for them, it's not going to work out. 35 employees. I could not make a phone call. I had to do six trade shows a year, all with lip reading. And I would go back to my hotel room and cry from exhaustion because I had to lip read and it was like lipreading a foreign language.

Steve Taddei: Eventually, Richard did find help. However, like most people, it was years and years after his problems started. And he's not alone. Most people wait an average of five to seven years before treating their hearing loss with appropriate technology.

Richard Pocker: I was hoping for a cure and hoping for a cure, and hoping for a cure. And I waited 35 years to get cochlear implants. And I went from zero speech comprehension for 35 years to 85% with rehabilitation. So it was pretty miraculous in that sense. I just felt a calling to help people not make the same mistake I made.

Steve Taddei: Rehabilitation, as Richard just mentioned, involves auditory training, where you practice challenging and sometimes interactive listening tasks. With practice, this can improve your ability to discriminate and identify different sounds. This can be especially useful for cochlear implantees, as the brain must adapt to the new stimulus provided by the cochlear implant processor and electrode array.

Richard Pocker: I could understand words in a couple of weeks, but it took maybe two or three months for it to really normalize. But I worked very hard at it. So I sat here in front of my computer and streamed her speech, lipreading her. And after about three or four days, it was ... it was sounding good. So I said, I'll sit across the other side of the room and stream without lip reading. And it took a couple of days and came back. So that was one way the joy of speech came back, but it takes work.

Steve Taddei: Richard applied a similar methodology to music. Which is something he had long since given up due to the severity of his hearing loss and not being able to enjoy it.

Richard Pocker: So the music side of it is I love music. I'm not a musician. I can't sing to save my life, but I enjoy listening to it. Once I got the cochlear implants, I streamed music all day long. I found that swing jazz was the easiest to listen to. So I would stream a station from Sweden. It would only play swing. And that's how I rehabilitated music.

If you got a cochlear implant, you can talk for playing an oboe or a trumpet. It sounds the same. Only through repetition, your brain is going to catch on to what that sound is. It sounds natural, but your brain doesn't know it. You're not listening with your ears. You're listening with your brain.

I also designed a music rehabilitation section. If you look at my website and you click on it at the top, it says music rehab. I managed to get, I believe its 28 musicians to donate two minute clips of their particular instrument. So if you want to learn what a saxophone sounded like, we have to relearn it. You could just play that clip over and over and over again.

Steve Taddei: Those soundbites you just heard are directly from Richard's website, cochlearimplantbasics.com, and there are plenty more available for your listening pleasure. Aside from Richard's mentorship, his website has video content, podcasts, tools for things like music rehabilitation, and many other resources. He's trying to share the experiences of others like you, in hopes that information will fuel your own research and help you make more informed decisions.

Richard Pocker: Let's face it, deafness is an amputation. It's an amputation. You're learning through an artificial leg, artificial hand, whatever you have to learn again. That's all there is to it. If you got your sight back one day, you'd have to learn to see colors again. The brain's amazing. I don't let people give up. There's no greater feeling in the world when somebody comes back to you six months later and says, you know what, I would've done this if you hadn't pushed me a bit. You know, that's the greatest reward in the world

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Our auditory system processes sound in a way that is unrivaled by even the best modern technology. It allows us to enjoy things like music, birds chirping. It provides us with the ability to verbally communicate and it helps warn us when there's danger. But what if you have hearing loss? If nothing else, this presents serious safety concerns. While there are numerous fantastic hearing devices, people face many barriers as a result of auditory damage and the limitations of our current technology. But what if there's a device that could help you hear sound through your sense of touch?

David Eagleman: My group has been interested in looking for other means of getting sound information to the brain.

Steve Taddei: That's Dr. David Eagleman. He's a neuroscientist who's been working to develop a product around the concept of sensory substitution.

David Eagleman: Sensory substitution is just the idea of getting information to the brain via an unusual sensory channel. In our case, what we're doing is we're feeding auditory information to the brain. But instead of going through the ear, we go through the skin. So the way that sound normally works is you have sound compression waves that vibrate your eardrum that works its way through the middle ear and to the inner ear.

And what's going on there is the inner ear breaks sound up into its different frequencies from low to high. And then that gets shipped off to the brain via spikes of activity in these neurons. And the reason that's interesting is because when you hear a voice, like my voice now, you don't feel like you're saying, "Oh, there's some low-frequency and some high-frequency and some medium." Instead, you just have this feeling that you're hearing the voice going on. But in fact, when we look in the brain, it's these little digital signals along these different cables, essentially.

Steve Taddei: Dr Eagleman and his team wanted to create a similar information pathway to the brain without directly using our hearing system. Ultimately, they created the Neosensory Buzz.

David Eagleman: We built a wristband. It's about the size of a Fitbit, and it has vibratory motors on the band. And what the band is doing is capturing sound. It has a microphone built into it. And it's running very sophisticated algorithms and it turns that sound into patterns of vibration on the skin. And again, it's breaking up the sound from high to low frequency, just like the inner ear does.

Steve Taddei: For example, imagine if, instead of hearing this... [small dog barks]... you felt this on your wrist. [haptic buzzing sound] Or what if your hearing loss was so severe that you couldn't detect the siren from a safety vehicle. Sensory substitution and the Neosensory Buzz could convert that acoustic information into a pattern that over time your brain would recognize as an ambulance passing by.

David Eagleman: That information climbs up, you know, your nerves up your spinal cord and to the brain. Now to the brain of course, it's not used to getting sound this way, but it's surprising how quickly people can get very good at this, and the reason is, the brain is looking for correlations. So, you know, you snap your fingers, you knock on the door, you vocalize something, you hear someone else vocalize something and your brain is putting together, "Oh, I see. I'm making this motor output or someone else's got this visual signal that's coming to me and I'm getting this information along my wrist", and your brain quickly figures it out. And what people come to experience within some number of months, is it's just like hearing. As bizarre as this sounds, it's the same thing. I mean, the thing to appreciate that's hard because we're so used to our ears is that it's just spikes coming into the brain and your brain makes sense of it.

Steve Taddei: This process where our brains look for correlations across different senses, and then make associations, is the same concept as auditory training and music rehab that we were discussing earlier with Richard. And whether it's buzzing on our wrists or a processed electrical impulse from a cochlear implant, our brains can learn and associate these signals.

While speaking with Dr. Eagleman, I grew curious about the resolution of Buzz. After all, our hearing system is extremely advanced. If we look at the softest sound we can hear and compare to the loudest sound, right at the threshold of actually causing pain and instant damage, we see ratio of a billion to one. When we look at frequency, a healthy young child is able to perceive 20 cycles of air compression per second, all the way to around 20,000 cycles

To put it in another way. In order for you to hear this, [rising tone] it means your eardrum is vibrating at 250 times per second. If I increase the frequency to 10,000 Hertz or 10,000 cycles per second, it means your eardrums are vibrating back and forth 10,000 times per second. [high-pitched, 10kHz tone]  If you ask me that is pretty impressive.

So how accurately can buzz hold up to the resolution of our hearing and something as common as speech.

David Eagleman: One thing that I was really concerned about at the beginning is how do we make sure that it's fast enough to represent phonemes, these old chunks of language? And it turns out that, this has actually turn out to be very easy. So our motors were operating the motors with 16 millisecond timeframes. So every 16 milliseconds, there's a new frame of data that says, "oh okay, here's the audio, here's what to do." And, an average phoneme, a chunk of language, lasts about 80 milliseconds. So it turns out we have plenty of resolution and the skin can respond rapidly enough with vibration to encode that.

Steve Taddei: So how does buzz work with current technologies and ones that you may already be using?

David Eagleman: What we've also found is there's a, a large demand for this, with people who already have tech, like hearing aids or cochlear implants, because what people often want, is, they take their tech out at night time and then they feel a little nervous as in, you know, what, if somebody is knocking on my door, a fire alarm goes off, or how will I hear my alarm in the morning? A lot of people with severe to profound hearing loss who use the wristband Buzz, they're actually not using it for speech. And in fact, some people have told us that they want to turn speech off. We've actually made it so that the buzz can detect speech and either turn speech up or turn speech down because what a lot of people want we found is just environmental awareness. As in, hey, there's a car coming, there's a baby crying, there's someone ringing my doorbell.

And what a number of people have described is that this is like three dimensional hearing by which they simply mean, they're reading lips, they're hearing something through their cochlear implant, and now they're getting information through their wrist as well. And when you combine all of these, that tightens the probability distribution about what's getting said. And so it really helps people a lot. It really refines their ability to hear what's going on.

Steve Taddei: The Neosensory Buzz is such an interesting exploration into the untapped potential of our bodies. It's also a testament to how powerful and amazing our brains truly are. From our discussion with Richard in auditory rehab to sensory substitution with Dr. David Eagleman, it's clear that various forms of brain training can be extremely helpful when trying to hear better with a hearing loss, and there's still so much to be learned.

The Hearing Tracker Podcast is hosted by me, Steve Taddei. Each episode, we reach out to people with hearing difficulty and / or industry leaders to talk about the hearing system, innovative technologies, and what's to come.

This episode was written, produced, and sound designed by me with help from Abram Bailey, Bruce Smith and TJ Belek.

We'd like to thank Richard Pocker for sharing his experiences and his continued work supporting those with hearing loss. For more information about him and other resources, visit cochlearimplantbasics.com.

We'd also like to thank Dr. David Eagleman for discussing Buzz and how it can be used to push the boundaries of current technologies. For more information, visit neosensory.com.

If you have a unique story related to your hearing, or if there's another show topic you'd love to hear, share it with us, and send a line to steve@hearingtracker.com. Finally, you can find much more helpful content and keep up to date by visiting us on Facebook, Twitter, or HearingTracker.com. Thanks for listening.