Can I turn off my hearing?
May 18, 2012 3:58 AM   Subscribe

Would it be possible to install a switch of some sort in my head that would enable me to turn my hearing on and off? I realise that I would be unlikely to find a doctor willing to do this, but I'm interested in the theoretical possibilities.

Could the auditory nerve be severed and then some sort of switch/filter installed? Something something cochlear implant? Would it be possible to do this without affecting the quality of hearing, but rather simply whether it was 'on' or 'off'?
posted by alby to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I do not think so because most nerves do not regenerate. Plus why would you want to? You could just use ear plugs instead?
posted by majortom1981 at 4:50 AM on May 18, 2012

Transhumanists discuss the potential for body enhancements through technology. They certainly, somewhere, have contemplated this scenario and likely have come up with some plausible form of future technology which would enable one to do what you're envisioning.

I don't have a cite to any such discussion, though, but that Wiki article has a lot of information on the subject broadly, and some relevant links. Happy hunting.
posted by dfriedman at 5:00 AM on May 18, 2012

The "wire" going from ear to brain is not like an electric wire in your house - 120V, alternating. It's a bundle of signal wires - like a network cable.

I'm mostly deaf in one ear. The ear works perfectly; it's the signals in the nerve that are fucked up. As a consequence, I also have very poor balance in that ear; when I have an infection in only my good ear I walk around like I'm drunk.
posted by notsnot at 5:01 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'd basically have to take out your eardrums and go to cochlear implants. You'd leave the nerves alone though. When those are damaged, you're basically irretrievably deaf. But we've got passable mechanical substitutes for the vibratory side of things.
posted by valkyryn at 5:05 AM on May 18, 2012

Plus why would you want to? You could just use ear plugs instead?

Why would I not want to? I realise that my hearing is very useful, and provides useful information in terms of avoiding danger etc, but the ability to temporarily disable my hearing when sitting next to someone on the train who has his music up too loud, or when the people in the flat below are having a loud party would be great.

And ear plugs don't cut out sound, they just reduce its volume.
posted by alby at 5:31 AM on May 18, 2012

You'd basically have to take out your eardrums and go to cochlear implants.

Does this mean that people with cochlear implants can do what I'm suggesting? If they can, do they ever do this? If not, why not? I understand that the brain adjusts to take account of a missing sense, but I don't imagine this would happen over a short period of time.
posted by alby at 5:32 AM on May 18, 2012

Does this mean that people with cochlear implants can do what I'm suggesting? If they can, do they ever do this?

The fictional character Amelia in The Silence does it frequently.
posted by flabdablet at 5:51 AM on May 18, 2012

My understanding is that not all the sounds you hear are mechanically generated—in other words, even if you were able to somehow switch off the input of audio information to your brain, your brain could somehow still find a way to generate the sensation of noise. I can't remember where I read this, so I might be wrong, but I think the example used was that people who are deafened later in life (as opposed to being born deaf) frequently experience tinnitus or roaring sounds caused by neural activity rather than external sound.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:03 AM on May 18, 2012

Speaking as a cochlear implant user, cochlear implants destroy all residual hearing. Which means that what you "hear" (which is basically electrical impulses relayed to the implant by the sound processor) is only through using the cochlear implant.

The cochlear implant is a permanent part; the sound processor is a programmable headset that can be removed or adjusted when needed. It's not as simple as having "a switch" between hearing and non-hearing; the sound processor has to be programmed beforehand so that it knows how to interpret sound-- and your brain takes some time in learning what those brand new electrical impulses down your auditory nerve *mean*.

Since the sound processor is a mini-computer, it has to be reprogrammed roughly a few times a year as programs become corrupted or your perception of sound changes.

After all of that effort in defining sound versus noise-- I kinda feel inclined to keeping my sound processor on during most of my waking hours!

I do turn off my sound processor when there's an especially annoying noise, or if I want to give my brain a rest from constantly interpreting sound. Matter of fact, I don't have it on right now because everyone else is asleep and it's just me. :)

Caveat: I was born deaf, so for me it's pure silence when the sound processor is off. I understand that people with tinnitus may experience reduced recurrences of tinnitus, but it's a very YMMV situation.
posted by lineofsight at 6:14 AM on May 18, 2012 [11 favorites]

Wait, there are earplugs that can produce total silence? Are they commercially available?
posted by instamatic at 6:20 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

In theory you wouldn't have to even go the cochlear implant route, you could mess with your eardrum and/or ossicles and then get a bone-anchored hearing aid that you could turn on and off. It would be reasonably reversible since they are pretty good at reconstructing eardrums/ossicles at this point. Drawbacks: I imagine your hearing with the BAHA would be worse than natural hearing and also of course no surgeon would actually do this for you if it wasn't medically necessary.
posted by yarrow at 7:10 AM on May 18, 2012

I agree that there is no simple switch for turning sound off in your brain. Certainly if you could NOT install a switch between your ear and your brain you COULD sever the connection, but you'd still likely hear things.

I have tinnitus, and my hearing is excellent. My doctor explained to me that the ringing that I hear (three different constant tones, in my case) is process activity within the brain stimulating the portion of it which handles audio.
If there were a switch that could turn those sounds off, my quality of life would improve tremendously, and I wouldn't give a damn about anybody's too loud music or parties.
posted by No Shmoobles at 7:16 AM on May 18, 2012

Another CI user here ... you'd be pretty unhappy with the results if you were previously a hearing person; I love mine, I think it's great, but I'm coming from much *worse* hearing than a CI provides. And it's not a sure thing; occasionally the surgery isn't successful. But yeah, like lineofsight said, the surgery damages the cochlea, so you wouldn't have to remove the eardrum - and you wouldn't want to, because the eardrum keeps the middle ear protected against the outside world. Without it, you'd likely have all sorts of problems with infections. When I had my CI implanted, as a secondary part of the surgery, the doc patched a large hole I've had in my eardrum since I was a kid.

That said, I take off the external piece and get blissful glorious silence all the time. On the subway? On the airplane? At home, if no one else (or at least, no non-signers) is around? Oh yeah. It's awesome. I do have some residual hearing in my left ear, which doesn't have the implant, but even there, if I take the hearing aid out, all I get is at most some quiet noises when really loud stuff happens. Nice and relaxing.

I do have some tinnitus, but more in my non-CI ear, and only intermittent and quiet tinnitus in the CI ear - it used to be much worse.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:23 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I would guess the BAHA approach would get you better hearing than a CI but still worse than natural hearing, and it would be way less destructive. The BAHA uses your natural inner ear but bypasses all of the conduction parts of the ear (eardrum/ossicular chain). If you've ever taken a hearing test where they place the headset on the bone behind your ear, they are testing whether there is conductive hearing loss versus sensorineural loss.

Again, do not do this.
posted by yarrow at 7:38 AM on May 18, 2012

Just in case anyone was in any doubt, I have absolutely no intention of trying to do this. I'm just interested by the possibilities.
posted by alby at 7:47 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait, there are earplugs that can produce total silence?

Hardly. And even if they did exist (or even with the OPs switch turning off your ears) you could and would still feel vibrations. In fact I think in the absence of hearing your perception of sounds via vibration becomes more acute.
posted by Rash at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2012

This is a really interesting question.

I have referenced before that I am a (formerly) licensed HIS and I have also moved from severe deafness at birth to profoundly deaf now (but not quite at the level where they would do a cochlear implant) and wear 2 hearing aids pushing 115 decibels of sound.

My hearing is impaired enough that simply turning off my hearing aids is sweet, sweet silence. (as spaceman_spiff references)

Without my hearing aids I only just barely hear speech when shouted point-blank in my ear - so activities like swimming or heavy physical stuff that would require to remove my hearing aids is mostly quiet time for me.

Most folks with a high level of loss using any type of aid or implant primarily rely on vision and often have garbled speech. This is mostly because you regulate and modulate your voice based on how you hear it as well as "feel" it via vibration and bone conduction. You may have seen/heard/read about the talk radio guy Rush Limbaugh who had a CI and he had to retrain himself to speak more like his "normal" previous tone.

What this comes up against is a tangled theory. Because the cochlea transmits the audio signal to the brain as an electrical impulse and it receives that impulse by a variety of components including bone conduction there's not really an easy way to turn it "on" or "off"

Those who are born deaf have several different causes but what severely limits the opportunity for them to hear via surgical or other means later in life is that the brain has not created the pathways and signal processing to interpret the incoming audio to recognizable sounds. This process begins in the womb (babies responding to sound in the womb) and the signal processing is learned over the early years culminating in language learning and beyond.

Even folks who have minor loss and later receive amplification via hearing aids find that the sounds are often harsh or startling - mainly because their brains have gotten used to the muted tones and have not had to handle the incoming signals in those ranges for a while.

Even when all other outside signals are removed we still have tinnitus and other symptoms which are basically the nerve endings in the cochlea sending false signals. The "ringing" is usually due to lack of an outside signal overwhelming the "false" signal from the damaged nerves.

Even if the auditory nerve was severed to have some type of on/off switch - I imagine that your brain - missing the usual sensory input - would manufacture some potentially crazy stuff to keep itself stimulated. (Sensory deprivation tanks do this)

I suppose some variation of an ototoxic medication could dampen or reduce the sense of hearing but this is generally a negative effect and does not heal or correct quickly even when the ototoxins are no longer in use.

My best guess at a feasible way to do this would be some sort of deep brain stimulation (DBS) using microelectrodes as sometimes used by neurosurgeons might be a way to either distract or shut down the portions of the cerebullum that control our hearing response.

Really interesting question - the opposite of how I imagine most of us with deafness think.
posted by emjay at 6:27 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another little FYI-

Envoy Medical has a device called the "ESTEEM" that seems really neat.

I have no affiliation to this product or company but I share because I am interested in doing this procedure myself and I'm sure many of the hearing-impaired Mefites following this thread may be as interested as I.

(It's a little pricey for me yet but one can dream)
posted by emjay at 6:32 PM on May 18, 2012

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