Dr. Oliver Sacks on his hearing loss | Auditory processing on Blog#42

I was happy to see a new op-ed from Oliver Sacks recently. I was sure we’d not hear from him again after his op-ed in February, announcing he has terminal cancer.

But, here I am, reading him again and still learning more about something of a loved one’s that I’ve lived with for over eighteen years: a wonky auditory processing system.

Granted, my husband and daughter’s auditory processing issues aren’t due to hearing loss, but his op-ed clarified for me a lot of what I’ve been thinking about dealing with two loved ones who may hear something entirely different, polar opposite at times, from what I actually said.

There are those times when what was perceived is so preposterous that the three of us crack up about it as soon as the listener confesses to what they’d heard. There have been many times when the misunderstanding went unnoticed and trouble followed. My husband developed a strategy that, when we first met, I thought was one of his charms. When what he heard is too preposterous to be right, he repeats what he thinks he heard. That makes the other person correct his impression, or not. Our daughter hasn’t quite picked up on that technique. I suspect her Autism has something to do with that.

We try to speak to each other with the least possible amount of background or foreground noise. Whenever there is music, we warn each other before speaking, so someone turns it down. When noise can’t be helped, we might even use instant messaging or text each other as coping strategies, to avoid misunderstandings. Most of all, though, we laugh a lot at the silly things we think we heard, then we repeat the actual things we said.

Dr. Sacks, should you see this blog post, I would like you to know that neither my husband or daughter mishear notes or even song lyrics. Our daughter even has the uncanny ability to learn them from their first listen. With my husband, it takes a few…


Mishearings – NYTimes.com


A FEW weeks ago, when I heard my assistant Kate say to me, “I am going to choir practice,” I was surprised. I have never, in the 30 years we have worked together, heard her express the slightest interest in singing. But I thought, who knows? Perhaps this is a part of herself she has kept quiet about; perhaps it is a new interest; perhaps her son is in a choir; perhaps .…

I was fertile with hypotheses, but I did not consider for a moment that I had misheard her. It was only on her return that I found she had been to the chiropractor.

A few days later, Kate jokingly said, “I’m off to choir practice.” Again I was baffled: Firecrackers? Why was she talking about firecrackers?

As my deafness increases, I am more and more prone to mishearing what people say, though this is quite unpredictable; it may happen 20 times, or not at all, in the course of a day. I carefully record these in a little red notebook labeled “PARACUSES” — aberrations in hearing, especially mishearings. I enter what I hear (in red) on one page, what was actually said (in green) on the opposite page, and (in purple) people’s reactions to my mishearings, and the often far-fetched hypotheses I may entertain in an attempt to make sense of what is often essentially nonsensical.

After the publication of Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” in 1901, such mishearings, along with a range of misreadings, misspeakings, misdoings and slips of the tongue were seen as “Freudian,” an expression of deeply repressed feelings and conflicts.

But although there are occasional, unprintable mishearings that make me blush, a vast majority do not admit any simple Freudian interpretation. In almost all of my mishearings, however, there is a similar overall sound, a similar acoustic gestalt, linking what is said and what is heard. Syntax is always preserved, but this does not help; mishearings are likely to capsize meaning, to overwhelm it with phonologically similar but meaningless or absurd sound forms, even though the general form of a sentence is preserved.

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