man in sunglasses talking on cell phone outside

When Michael Chorost’s cochlear implant is first turned on—as he describes in his memoir Rebuilt—he can understand little of the inputs the device gives him. He can hear noises, to be sure; but they sound electronic and unfathomable. But as time passes, he begins to identify more and more of the sounds around him, including human speech.

One moment of profound insight comes when he calls his mom on the phone. Chorost explains that deciphering voices on the phone is particularly difficult—harder than understanding voices in person. He writes:

“I didn’t know how I was understanding her. Her voice still sounded muddy and confused, distant, unsatisfying. Hearing her was not a whole, integrated experience. It was like hearing through a barrier, a wall of bizarre white noise. It felt like constantly guessing at what she was saying, but being inexplicably right much of the time.”

How strange: he felt like he couldn’t understand her, but for the most part, he could. Chorost describes the feeling of listening as a cyborg like this, at another point in the book:

“Hearing with a cochlear implant, I realized in the third or fourth week post-activation, was going to be like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake. I would have to learn to glide over the soundstream, not always fully in contact with it but getting the general meaning.”

I love this simile of cyborg listening being like a skipping stone. This bit of figurative language seems to be doing double duty. On the one hand, you can think of the stone touching the lake as being the deciphered words, and the stone in the air as being the garbled words that the brain has to guess at.

On the other hand, there is this profound image of the listening having to be balanced just right. To throw the stone awkwardly and have it plunge in and sink will not facilitate hearing, but only make it worse. In other words, Chorost feels that he has to get his mind into just the right frame in order for his best hearing to happen. He has to concentrate not too much, and not too little.

This reminds me of experiences I have had in my life, even though I am not a cyborg. For example, I have noticed that while meditating, I have to concentrate just the right amount. Too much concentration makes me tense up, and too little concentration results in a mind that wanders, undisciplined.

As another example, I used to suffer from social anxiety, trying to overthink all of my interactions and stumbling over my words as I struggled and failed to consciously place each one. But when I relaxed a bit and let the conversation flow, I found that my brain could handle a social interaction quite well without my constant intervention. But if I relaxed too much, that was bad too because then I had no filter and all sorts of imprudent things came out of my mouth.

Have you had experience with edge-riding?