Deaf Jam: Experiencing Music Through A Cochlear Implant : Shots - Health News After swapping hearing aids for a cochlear implant, Sam Swiller's taste in music shifted dramatically, from grunge rock to folk. Now scientists are trying to improve how implants relay music.

Deaf Jam: Experiencing Music Through A Cochlear Implant

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Today in Your Health, we're going to explore what it's like to experience music through a cochlear implant. To people who depend on these surgically implanted hearing devices, a song like this...


INSKEEP: ...May sound more like this.


INSKEEP: NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a man whose love of music has persisted through hearing loss and cochlear implantation.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: By the time Sam Swiller turned 1, even loud noises had become faint. Hearing aids helped, but Swiller was living in a different world when it came to perceiving sounds.

SAM SWILLER: The earliest memory I have of that awareness is a family picnic around the time I was 4 or 5, really feeling isolated and separated from everyone even though it was a picnic filled with family friends, young kids running around.

HAMILTON: Swiller says even with hearing aids, he was understanding maybe 1 word in 3. He relied on lip reading and creativity to get by.


HAMILTON: And he took refuge in music, loud music that cranked up the sounds he heard best - drums and bass.

SWILLER: Isolation was kind of a common theme in my childhood, and so Nirvana kind of spoke to me in a way.


NIRVANA: (Singing) Load up on guns. Bring your friends. It's fun to lose...

HAMILTON: But Swiller had no idea what the lyrics were saying until MTV started closed captioning its music videos. He says it didn't matter.

SWILLER: I just loved music, not just the sound of music but the whole theory of music, the energy that's created, the connection between a band and the audience and just the whole idea of just rocking out.

HAMILTON: Swiller kept rocking through high school and college. Then, in his late 20s, the hearing he had left pretty much vanished. So in 2005, he swapped his hearing aids for a cochlear implant. One part of the device is implanted under the skin behind the ear. It receives information from a microphone and processor that are worn like a traditional hearing aid. When a doctor switched it on for the first time, Swiller wasn't prepared for the way people would sound.

SWILLER: I remember sitting in a room and thinking everyone was a digital version of themselves.

HAMILTON: The voices seemed artificial, high-pitched and harsh, and he couldn't figure out what people were saying.

SWILLER: You're basically remapping the audio world. And so your brain is understanding, OK, I understand this is a language, but I need to figure out how to interpret this language.

HAMILTON: Which he did over the next few months. And he started listening to music again. But through the implant, Nirvana was less appealing.

SWILLER: So I was kind of getting pushed away from sounds that I used to love but also being more attracted to sounds that I never really appreciated before.


BJORK: (Singing) A juxtaposition in fate.

SWILLER: I started to like a lot more folk music and a lot more vocals. So, like, Bjork is a good example.


BJORK: (Singing) coordinates.

HAMILTON: A cochlear implant isn't just a fancy hearing aid. Jessica Phillips-Silver, a neuroscience researcher at Georgetown University, says the devices work in very different ways.

JESSICA PHILLIPS-SILVER: The hearing aid is really just an amplifier. The cochlear implant is actually bypassing the damaged part of the ear and delivering electrical impulses directly to the auditory nerve.

HAMILTON: The brain has to learn how to interpret these impulses, and every brain does that a bit differently. Phillips-Silver says another factor is that implants simply ignore some of the sound information in music. She showed how this affects listening in an experiment that involved people with cochlear implants responding to some dance music.


ELVIS CRESPO: (Singing in Spanish).

PHILLIPS-SILVER: It was called "Suavemente" by Elvis Crespo (laugher). It's one that's heard commonly in the clubs, and it gets people going.

HAMILTON: At first, people with implants responded just like other people. They began moving in time with the music. But which sounds were they responding to?

PHILLIPS-SILVER: There is a lot going on. There's a lot of different instrument sounds. There's a vocal line. There's a great range of frequencies. It's fairly intricate music.

HAMILTON: So Phillips-Silver had participants listen to several stripped-down versions of "Sauvemente."


HAMILTON: When the volunteers heard this drum-tone version, they had no trouble keeping the beat. But when they heard this piano version, they had a lot of trouble.


HAMILTON: Phillips-Silver says that's because what a cochlear implant does really well is transmit the information needed to understand speech.

PHILLIPS-SILVER: Where it is somewhat lacking is more in relating information about pitch and timbre - so, for example, being able to tell the difference between notes that are close together on a keyboard or being able to tell the difference between two similar instruments.

HAMILTON: Other scientists are trying to make those things possible. Les Atlas is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington.

LES ATLAS: There is no easy way to encode pitch as an electrical stimulation pattern. That's problem number one. Problem number two is to be able to do that in real-time - that means as the music is coming out - is a difficult problem.

HAMILTON: As a result, even the newest cochlear implants provide very little information about pitch. Take a simple tune on a piano.


HAMILTON: Through an implant, it may sound more like this simulation.


HAMILTON: So Atlas and other researchers are working on software that allows implants to convey more information.

ATLAS: It explicitly looks for the tonality in the music and uses it in how things are encoded.

HAMILTON: Instead of this...


HAMILTON: ...The implant sends a more complicated signal that allows the brain to decode information about pitch.


ATLAS: And lo and behold, the results we get now on the few people we've tested is that they do get better music cues. They can hear, not perfectly but much better, the difference between musical instruments. The richness of their experience when they listen to music has increased.

HAMILTON: Atlas says the extra information also should help people with implants who need to understand highly tonal languages like Chinese and Vietnamese. Even with technical improvements, the experience of hearing the world through a cochlear implant will still be different, but Sam Swiller, who's had his implant for a decade now, says he's OK with that.

SWILLER: All of our senses give us the ability to experience very different worlds, and even though we're walking side-by-side, we're experiencing a very different street, a very different day, very different colors. And so when we truly engage each other, we get to experience a little bit of each other's world, and that's where I think real creativity happens.

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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