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 Do deaf people “hear” their own thoughts.

During my twenty eight years of total deafness I never really understood the question. Hearing people would ask what do words sound like in your head? Being deaf I’d never “heard” words nor sound. How was I to relate a sound when I had no comparison point? I was certainly at a lose to answer this question.

I never really understood the question and in some ways it seemed a bit insulting. Like without sound how can you think? It seemed bizarre anyone would ask such a thing. I mean to presume because I can’t hear a word I can’t understand it. But that wasn’t the real question now was it?

They never asked how can you understand words in your head if you can’t hear them. They asked how does your mind conceptualize a word without sounding that word out. When you think is there a sound? The simple answer is no.

There isn’t any sound when I conceptualize a word in my mind but neither is there for you. Your brain is processing in the way it learned the word. It fires up the neurons and uses sound a familiar thing to “retrieve” the word.

Now that I’ve experienced sound I kind of understand the question. When as a hearing person you read, you hear your own voice inside saying the words. I still don’t hear that. I don’t “think out loud” so to speak. For me I’ve always thought in private and in silence.

My brain never processed sound with thought because sound wasn’t second nature. Now since my implants when I “hear” a cricket and I know the sound, my brain retrieves the file for cricket.

In a way I “hear” myself but not as sound. it’s more as color, emotion, and visual concepts than as sound per se. The human brain doesn’t actually “hear”, but for hearing people it appears as they say the words as they read the brain processes the signal as sound. Which to a hearing brain is familiar.

To a deaf person like me sound isn’t familiar and therefore the brain processes on a different level, Both brains retrieve the same information but with different access methods and signals.

For me thoughts have always been more visual. That’s probably because that is what is most familiar to me. The psychosomatic visualization of sound in a hearing brain is paralleled in the deaf brain but different. We all think in terms and ideas that are natural to us.

So for you the hearing my visual brain would seen foreign as much as your auditory brain would to me.

Now on to since I’ve been hearing with my implants. the doctors and therapists have me repeating words aloud to learn and practice the sound. I do find myself now with familiar words “hearing” them and seeing them instead of just visually seeing them.

Now the words have to be familiar and words I’ve said aloud but I can “hear” internally even now without sound the words as I read them that are familiar to me.

My implants have been a trip, a real learning experience as well as a process of discovery. For me all the new information being sent to my brain is overwhelming, exhilarating and embarrassing at times.

It’s like I have to start out as a baby and learn as they do. Everything from filtering noise I don’t need like lights buzzing to learning sounds and words.

Sound is still very new and some combinations are difficult to process. For example the word yellow gave me fits. For weeks I could say Yell and Low as individual words but when put together it came out as Lellow.

It’s been maddening at times I must admit. Retooling my brain has been the most profound experience of my life, the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do and the most rewarding dream come true. And it’s not over yet.

Perhaps as sound becomes more integrated I will begin to think in sound more like a hearing person. Perhaps my mind will still blend both what it’s always known and this new medium. Time will tell.

Either way it’s been and continues to be an interesting ride.

So this was a great question and I understand some of it now. I understand why people asked it better now that I’ve experienced both deafness and sound. It is hard to understand because to those who hear the voice in your head is as natural as breathing. Without my implants I would have never truly understood the question.

It’s the manner in which a hearing brain retrieves words it knows as familiar. It has recorded your voice saying them and uses that sound to match it to definitions and familiar subjects. Much like mine uses color, emotion and visualized concepts to match to the same definitions.

There is no real ‘sound” in the brain. There is only a memory of how to retrieve it. The index (file allocation table if you will) on how to retrieve this piece of data. For the auditory brain the retrieval key appears to have an auditory component making you think you “hear” the word when in reality you are thinking of the memory of yourself saying and hearing the word.

~Michelle Styles – June 13, 2014