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> The New Sound

> The Real Epilogue

The Real Epilogue


So, in case it hasn't become clear already, this essay is actually a public service announcement about tinnitus. It can happen to you! According to Wikipedia (Tinnitus), it happens mainly to old people (like me) in connection with hearing loss, and is very common, with the odds being about one in three. Hopefully if you're aware of the possibility ahead of time, your experience will be less horrific than mine.

Three years later, the sound is still there, but I've gotten used to it and it bothers me less. I notice it mostly in quiet places … in my quiet apartment, in my extremely quiet bedroom, and most of all when I'm trying to get to sleep and when I wake up in the morning. I can hear it almost anywhere though if I unwisely choose to listen for it.

What does it sound like? Well, it's really unlike anything else I've ever heard. It's not a pure tone. The best comparison I've been able to come up with is that it's like a tea kettle shifted to a super-high frequency. It has the same insistent quality. Also, I hear it in both ears equally. From the description on Wikipedia, I gather that (1) different people hear different things, but (2) my experience is fairly typical.

I want to say, as Wikipedia does, that the sound interferes with concentration, but that's not exactly right. I can still concentrate on things, and when I'm concentrating I don't notice the sound at all. The trouble is that when I stop concentrating, even for a second, I do notice it, and then half the time I'll end up thinking about the sound instead of whatever else I might have wanted to think about. This is a disaster for creative work. Writing? Want to stop and think about the best word to use? The best way to phrase something? Sorry, no, says the damaged brain. How would you like to think about noise instead?

The distraction isn't great for planning, either. Want to stop and think about what to do next? Sorry, no.

But, as I said, the sound bothers me less now. I guess the probability of distraction has gradually gone down to the point where I can think semi-normally again. It was a long road, though. I feel like I spent two, two and a half years unable to stop, sit still, and think. It was only by heroic effort that I managed to finish what I'd been working on at the time (4D Blocks version 5), and since then I haven't really done much of anything, even though there are still plenty of things to do.

By the way, I find it helps to listen to music. Sort of. Music keeps me from noticing the sound, but music with words interferes with writing in a different way. In retrospect, I should have done more with classical music and nature sounds.

Now let me go back and answer a few questions about what actually happened three years ago. Yes, there was a real sound, and yes, it was caused by a computer fan upstairs, an old one that was out of alignment or something. When we cycled the power, that sound stopped. The “ultrasonic component”, before and after, was all in my head.

Was it a coincidence that the real sound and the tinnitus appeared at the same time? Of course not. But did the sound cause the tinnitus? I don't think so. My guess is, the tinnitus was bound to happen sooner or later, and the sound was just the trigger.

I don't know the exact mechanism, but here's a plausible idea. The kind of tinnitus I have is probably a result of having the gain turned up too high in some internal amplifier in the ear. (See Tinnitus.) And, you know how in a noisy environment you can pick out individual sounds and make them seem louder by paying attention to them? Well, maybe they seem louder because they are louder! Maybe we have some amount of voluntary control over the gain in those internal amplifiers, and maybe I turned mine up too high when I was trying to determine the source of the real sound. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any way to turn them back down.

Why did it take me so long to realize that I had tinnitus? Well, on the one hand, there were some big clues that I was slow to pick up on.

  • The ringing in my ears was far too persistent. I've occasionally been to loud clubs and had my ears still be ringing the next morning, so I know what that's like, and I should have recognized that this time was different.
  • If you ever think you hear the same sound everywhere, that's a clue.
  • If you ever think a sound isn't affected by earplugs, that's a clue.
  • From past experience with noisy neighbors, I know it's the bass that carries through the walls, not the high-frequency components, but somehow I failed to make that connection.

I actually did pick up on the clues eventually, enough that by the time I met with the consultant, I was already half expecting the news that it was all in my head.

On the other hand, there were a lot of big anti-clues that led me astray.

  • There was a real sound that was heard by other people and that went away the instant we turned the power off.
  • I really did have super hearing at one time. That led me to discount the fact that other people couldn't hear the other component of the sound.
  • I live by myself, so I didn't have a continuous second opinion to help keep me on track.
  • I was sleep-deprived and not thinking clearly.
  • Although tinnitus is very common, I knew absolutely nothing about it because people don't talk about it.
  • In particular, I didn't expect that the tinnitus would seem louder in some places and quieter in others. That led me to search for an external source.
  • Then there was the fatal coincidence! The place where the tinnitus seemed loudest was exactly the same as the place where the real sound was loudest.

That is the story of the new sound.


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@ December (2016)