Author photo by Leslie Hassler

Smart Reads: Lydia Denworth’s “I Can Hear You Whisper”

When science writer Lydia Denworth’s son Alex was nearly two years old, doctors discovered that he had significant hearing loss that was only likely to get worse. Denworth was thrown into the nexus of scientific, cultural and political issues surrounding hearing; like any good reporter, she decided to investigate further.

We sat down with Lydia Denworth recently to chat about her new book, “I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language”:

What’s one piece of advice you’d want to give yourself back when you first found out about Alex’s condition?

“You will figure this out. It won’t feel so unknowable.”

When you’re a parent and something like this happens, there’s a process you have to go through. You have to take the journey. But from where I sit now, it’s less daunting.

When did you find out there was something wrong with Alex?

He failed a hearing screening at birth, but a few weeks later he passed, so they said he just had mucus in his ears. But at 15 months he wasn’t walking, and he wasn’t talking. He wasn’t imitating the sounds I would make.

He was identified as having hearing loss in both ears a few weeks before his 2nd birthday. A few months later, he lost all the hearing in his right ear. He got a cochlear implant four months before his third birthday.

When did you realize you were going to have to become an expert on hearing?

Pretty much right from the start. Since I’m a reporter, doing research comes naturally to me. It was my way of coping – it was the thing I could do.

I didn’t decide to write the book until Alex was closer to 5. When he got the cochlear implant, I just had this sense of living science. If I was able to take off my parent hat, I had a front-row seat to something really fascinating.

Can you give us a brief breakdown of the science behind cochlear implants?

Hearing aids amplify sound and use any residual hearing somebody has. Cochlear implants bypass your ear altogether – they weave through it, but they’re sending sound directly to the auditory nerve and to the brain.

What were some of the high points and low points on your journey?

From the start, I thought cochlear implants sounded pretty terrific. It wasn’t hard for us to decide to do the surgery. What was hard was reconciling our view of the cochlear implant with the view of some people in Deaf culture, that this was a terrible thing.

I have a much more nuanced understanding now. They saw it as just one more “fix” for deafness, and deafness wasn’t a disability to them. They feel they lead very happy, worthwhile lives as Deaf people, and I respect that.

I would still today get a cochlear implant for my child.

How is Alex now?

He’s great. He’s 11, and he’s a pretty typical fifth-grader: he loves history, he’s an excellent basketball player, he has a lot of friends. On a lot of levels, his life doesn’t look any different than it might’ve, had he not had a hearing loss. But there is an extra layer of attention I pay to Alex’s academics and day-to-day life.

What’s your impression of the leading edge of hearing science?

Cochlear implants will still continue to improve. The signal that the cochlear implant sends is not nearly as good as natural hearing. Adults who get implants say it sounds like Donald Duck, or distorted, like someone delivering a ransom note.

The really big change is not in the implant itself but in who’s getting them and when. Children are now getting cochlear implants under the age of one.

Big advances in the future will come more at level of the cell and the gene. Hair cell regeneration allows cells that send signals to the auditory nerve to grow back if they’re damaged or missing. There’s techniques with stem cells, gene therapies. Most people feel that those are 10 years or more away. But with cochlear implants, people thought that this was a crazy idea at first. I wouldn’t bet against any of this.

Below, check out an excerpt from “I Can Hear You Whisper,” where Denworth takes readers on a lyrical tour through the anatomy of the ear:

On the far side lies the fluid-filled cochlea, the nautilus-like heart of the inner ear. The vibrations transmitted from the stapes through the oval window send pressure waves through the cochlear fluid; mechanical energy has become hydro energy. Outside, the cochlea is protected by hard, bony walls. Inside, the basilar membrane runs along its length like a ribbon. Thin as cellophane, the basilar membrane is stiff and narrow at one end, broad and flexible at the other. As sound waves wash through, the basilar membrane acts as a frequency analyzer. Higher pitched sounds, like hissing, excite the stretch of membrane closest to the oval window; lower pitches, like rumbling stimulate the farther reaches. Like inhabitants of a long curving residential street, specific sounds always come home to the same location, a particular 1.3 millimeters of membrane and the thirteen hundred neurons that live there, representing a “critical band” of frequencies.

Sitting on top of the basilar membrane is the romantically named organ of Corti. Known as the seat of hearing, it holds thousands of hair cells. Quite recently, scientists discovered a distinction between the functions of inner and outer cells. Twelve thousand outer cells, organized in three neat rows, amplify weak sounds and sharpen up tuning. Another four thousand inner hair cells, in one row, take on the work of sending signals to the auditory nerve fibers. Like microscopic glow sticks that light up when you snap them, the tiny stereocilia on each hair cell bend under the pressure of the wave of fluid caused by the sound wave and trigger an electrical impulse that travels up the nerve to the brain.

Lydia Denworth’s “I Can Hear You Whisper,” published by Dutton, goes on sale April 17.

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