This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at email@example.com.
There is a perception that an acoustician must have "golden ears." It is an absolute anathema for an acoustician to wear hearing aids. But that's exactly what I've done.
I've spent a lifetime listening to sound in a rather analytical way. I get paid for it, after all. So my journey into hearing aids is perhaps different than others. And I don't mind saying, it's been a bit scary.
I was warned that hearing aids would give me too much noise and that it would take a while to get used to it. It's true, I now hear my middle age bones crackle too much. The floorboards in our 100-year-old house make more noise than they used to. When I play my guitar – a 45-year-old passion – I hear upper harmonics that I honestly don't remember. But none of this is noise. Here's the thing: I design the sound in buildings, theatres and concert halls because I love sound. And if I can hear sound better in the most important building in my life – our home – that's a good thing.
I was convinced that I needed hearing aids by a medical professional I respect above all others. And I must admit, I have what might be interpreted as a slightly non-professional romantic relationship with her for 32 years now. She's my wife. Over the dinner table a couple of years ago she told me that I probably had a hearing loss of 35 decibels (dB) at 2000 hertz (Hz).
Recently, when Jacqueline finally measured my hearing, it turns out she was spot on: 35 dB down at 2000 Hz.
Well, what does that mean? 35 dB means you're trying to hear something on the other side of a very heavy door; 2000 Hz is the range of consonant frequencies that are critical for good speech discrimination; the speech sounds (called phonemes) of p, t and k are all clustered around this frequency. And so many words in English are defined by one differing phoneme – such as tin, pin and kin, for example. The high frequencies are the sounds that give words in Western languages their clarity. Think of stage actors, opera singers and, for that matter, the great Louis Armstrong. They all overemphasise their consonants so they can be understood at the back of the room.
Problem was, I couldn't hear those consonants any more. I was behind a heavy, well-sealed door.
The brain is a bit like a muscle. If there are parts of it you're not exercising, they fade away. But with my hearing aids, those parts of my brain will start to figure things out again. It's something called neuroplasticity.
Right now my feeble brain can't figure out all those k's and t's that I haven't really heard for a long time. It should take about six months for neuroplasticity to kick in. At least that's what my favourite medical professional tells me.
John O'Keefe is an acoustician living in Toronto
Read more stories in this series here.