Ear Stupid

by Tina Blue
December 17, 2000

          We have all read stories or seen movies about people who have been blind since birth, or at least from a very young age and for a very long time, who are given their sight as adults through some form of surgery. Such people often find it difficult, even impossible, to make sense out of all that new visual stimuli, and many want to return to their former sightless state. No doubt those who can see think it unimaginable that anyone would reject the gift of sight under any circumstances.

          But where the brain is concerned, it is true that if you don't use it you will lose it. The parts of the brain that receive data from the various senses form denser connections when those senses are heavily employed, and sparser connections when they are not.

          The human brain is incredibly plastic. During early childhood, and again during the adolescent years, it establishes a vast number of new dendrites and synapses, and then waits for the environment to indicate, by means of varied stimuli, which connections are most suited to meeting the demands of the individual's environment. The connections that are not much used will shrivel away, so that the more heavily used ones can become more densely represented.

          Thus, a person without sight actually will develop a more acute sense of hearing or smell, for example, or if he lacks both sight and hearing, his remaining senses will compensate by becoming more acute. Meanwhile, the parts of the brain that would receive and interpret information from the unavailable senses will atrophy from lack of use.

          Thus, when a blind person suddenly becomes sighted, his brain lacks the means of interpreting the visual stimuli that he is bombarded with. Over time, with diligent practice, his brain will usually compensate to some degree, and eventually he will manage to make sense of what he sees, though there will probably always be some processing confusion, and for some people the confusion will remain severe enough to render sight a burden rather than a blessing.

          The same is true for people with severe and long-term hearing impairments. People like me. I am extremely "right-eared," because even now my hearing impairment is far worse in my left than in my right ear. But even when I was very young, before my deafness had progressed to where it is now, my left ear was always much weaker than my right. Therefore, as much as possible I favored my right ear--using it for telephone calls, turning it in the direction of conversations, televisions, etc. I never relied on my left ear if I could help it.

          What happened was that my left ear became "stupid." Even if I did hear something with my left ear, I had trouble understanding it. Often someone would speak to me from that side, in a voice loud enough for me to actually hear his words, and I would be totally confused over what he had said. I would then turn my right ear toward the speaker, and that would enable me to understand what he was saying.           

          But as my hearing degenerated, I also stopped using my right ear for collecting information if I could find a way to inform myself visually. Eventually, my left ear became stupider, while my right ear became at least as stupid as my left ear had once been. Now, I cannot hear the words of a conversation unless the person speaks clearly and directly to me, from fairly nearby. But even under the most ideal circumstances, even when I can actually make out the words that have been spoken, I am often at a loss to make sense of what I have heard.

          I can't follow spoken directions unless they are given in short, simple bits. I can't understand if I am read aloud to--even if I actually do hear the words. My son has trouble accepting this limitation. He often calls me to read out loud some essay he is working on, and he gets quite frustrated when I can't advise him on how to improve it. But I can't even understand it over the phone.

          It happens with essay assignments, too. He'll read the assigned topic over the phone, but I won't be able to make sense of it, even if it is only a few sentences long. Michael is certain that I must not be paying attention--like, maybe I am washing dishes or playing with the cat and only giving him half my attention rather than the whole of it. That is not the case. In fact, I am straining as hard as possible to follow the words. But they don't make sense unless he slows down and gives me one short clause at a time.

          He is so used to the idea that I understand everything, and at an extraordinarily rapid rate, that he can't wrap his mind around the idea that I can't make sense out of a few sentences read over the phone, or that he has to speak more slowly to me over the phone than in person.  Normal conversations are a bit easier, since they tend to have a pre-existing context and to use simpler vocabulary and simpler sentence patterns, but even with normal conversations I will get confused if the person speaks too fast or takes a sudden turn and begins to talk out of context. In person it is easier, because by reading lips I am gathering most of the same information visually that I am receiving through my ears, and what I take in visually I understand easily.

          It's sort of like the situation you would encounter if you were talking to someone who, without warning, began to speak in a different language--even if it is a language you normally could converse in. At first, you wouldn't understand the words, because you wouldn't have switched your mind to that language yet.

          I have actually had situations where someone would read out loud to me a paragraph or essay, or perhaps an essay assignment, that I had written myself, and I would be unable to follow what was being read to me. Again, as hard as it can be in person, it is much harder over the phone, where I can't read lips.

          To put it simply, if you want me to understand anything complex, you will need to write it out for me. Otherwise, you'll need to slow down a bit.

          I think this is one reason why so many people confuse deafness either with stupidity or with willful inattention. Sometimes it is evident that we have heard what was said, but the confused look on our faces makes us seem either spacey or idiotic.

          And when a deaf person gets hearing aids, it often takes him quite awhile not only to learn to tolerate the sudden noisiness of a formerly peaceful environment, but also to learn how to make sense of what he now can hear. For a lot of people, that learning curve is so steep that they give up on wearing their hearing aids even before they have had a chance to benefit from them. The noise seems a high price to pay when one has not yet derived any advantage from the hearing aids.

          The longer the person wears the aids, the better they will work for him. And if he can stand it, keeping them in during most of his waking hours will help him to derive even more benefits.

          But I can't stand to wear mine, except when I teach, when I engage in conversation, or when I go to a movie. As soon as I can, I always remove them. Few deaf people I know (actually, none) follow their audiologist's advice to wear them all the time. Hearing aids are more bothersome than a hearing person can possibly know, which is why the family just can't understand why Mom or Grandma won't wear hers, especially after spending so much money on them.

          The less we hear, the less we rely on our hearing to gather information--and thus the less we can understand what we hear. We aren't stupid--but our ears probably are.
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