Kimberley Chan

15 Cochlear Implant Recipients Describe What Things Sounded Like After Activation

One week until activation

The insertion of the electrode array into my cochlea has destroyed the last of the functioning hair cells that allow me to hear; I am now completely deaf. It’s really weird. Everytime I drop something or slam a door, I expect to hear the loud sound, but I no longer do. Instead, I hear sounds that I’m not really hearing – hissing, buzzing, musical sounds – Tinnitus, which is one of the most common symptoms of hearing loss.

Now that the bandage has come off and the scar is on its way to being fully healed, I will be heading back to Quebec City next week to get my CI activated. I’ll get to wear the earpiece for the first time, and the 22 electrodes in the array will be activated bit-by-bit over a two week period.

Many have asked me questions about activation. While it’s hard for me to answer since I haven’t gone through it yet, I’ll do my best to answer some here:

After the two week activation period, will you be able to hear and return to work and everything?

Absolutely not. Remember, I’m no longer hearing with my ears anymore, as all my natural hearing has been completely killed. The earpiece (processor) will capture sound and send these sound signals to my auditory nerve via the electrodes. The brain will interpret these signals as sound. This is why to qualify for a CI, you need to have already had a sense of sound before, or have gotten the CI very early in life.

When you’ll be able to hear, what is it going to sound like?

It’s different for everyone. Since it’s “artificial” hearing, most people report the sound being very metallic and robotic right after activation, but depending on their level of hearing loss, how much they remember about how things sounded like, and how hard they work during post-activation rehab, it will become closer to normal hearing.

There are many videos going around on the Web that show deaf people hearing for the first time and are immediately overjoyed and seem to hear perfectly. That is not how activation really is.

Everybody has a different experience. I asked a few other CI recipients what they heard right after activation. Here’s what they told me:

“At the beginning, you may not understand. When I got my implant, all I heard were beeps instead of people talking.” -Nicholas, the audiologist who worked with me during my pre-op appointments. He has two CIs.

“I could hear voices but they were muffled when first activated. The first weekend after activation I was in the metro and as the station names were being called. It sounded like a computer inside my brain was letting me know the name was being called! Then within 2 weeks, I heard the world after leaving the office in QC. I could hear a cell phone ringing as we left and took a bus. It was A-mazing! I took therapy as soon as I came back and it helped a lot, people were so impressed with how my speech sounded and how I was listening.”-Trina (you can also read her blog here.)

“Minnie mouse on helium! (It sounded like that for) about a month to month and a half. My wife sounded like Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory for about 6-7 months.”

“I understood speech at switch on. I cried tears of joy. Voices were deep like Darth Vader but I had no complaints.” -Archie

“The first two days were hard. You will hear like if you are in middle of a star wars movie at first. Like trying to communicate in a war zone. Voices will sound far. Bangs and beeps will be loud over the voice. For me that ended on the 3rd day. It’s gonna be like this: Eeeeeecan youeeeee eeeehear meeeeeeeee. It just gets better.” -Pedro

“I heard hoover noises…only heard a word or two at switch on and couldn’t make out what they were. I am now activated 4 months and can watch T.V. and without subtitles, and I don’t lipread anymore.” -Anita

“Xylophones, for a few hours. Pretty soon I caught on that those were the voices, and it all fell into place. I could understand speech by that night, but not immediately.” -Scott

“I told my audiologist who is a younger woman that she sounded like a creepy man.” -Geoff

“As the glass doors of Cleveland Clinic slid open I stepped back into the world. No longer surrounded by the glass capsule I lived in, where I watched and tried to know what was going on around me. I heard the doors ‘shush’ which sounded like something from Star Trek. I kept turning my head every which way as new sounds emerged. I heard my audiologist say “What are you hearing?” My reply: “I heard your voice!” -Rochelle

“I understood speech clearly at activation. Voices sounded like Darth Vader wearing a fishbowl speaking a British accent then went away a few months later.” -Donnie

“I understood every word yet it sounded like chipmunks on helium.” -Seven

“When my left ear was activated in 2004, everything sounded like high-pitched cartoon characters on fast-forward. When my right ear was activated in 2014, everything sounded like a dial-up modem.” -Gretchen

“Beep, beep! And I felt vibrations in the cochlear. The thing I will always remember after not hearing for 40 years is my mother asking me how I can tell what the audiologist was saying if I could not hear the words. I said, ‘it’s beeping and vibrating in there with the tone or beat or syllable of the word.’ It’s really amazing!” -Kristin

“Everything was like caribbean drum sounds for 10 seconds. That turned to speech, but with caribbean drum syllables for 2 days. After that, pretty much normal sounds. Pretty amazing.” -Mike

John from Sydney, Australia sent me this hilarious video of his activation session. Have a laugh!


So yeah, seems like CI activation will turns people into robots, chipmunks, helium addicts, and more than five people reported that everything sounded like Darth Vader. I am curious to see what activation will be like for me, and I apologize in advance if I mistake you for Alvin, Bernadette, or (God forbid) Darth Vader!

Next: An update on how I’ve been doing and what’s coming up

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