Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Sound Sensor Failure

Since about 6 days now, I’ve been almost completely deaf in my right ear. The reason behind it is as trivial as can be but for some reason or other it seems as though it isn’t going to clear by itself. All I did wrong was to clear my throat while lying on my side and this in one smooth movement underpressured my ear and allowed the Eustacian tube on that side to become clogged. The result: instant and near complete loss of hearing on one side, welcome to the wonderful world of barotrauma. Incredible how trivial such a debilitating condition can come in to being, that’s a serious blow against any intelligent design theory ;). I’ve had a few previews of what this is like, typically after a long flight I’m deaf on the right hand side for a short while, usually no more than an hour but sometimes it lasts for a day and then it suddenly clears. Nothing as serious as what is happening right now though.

As a youngster I would take on any odd job to make some extra money and one of these jobs was to be stand-in person to help set up equipment for pop bands. One fine evening during a sound-check in the Jaap-Edenhal in the 80’s I lost some of the capacity for hearing high tones in my left ear so that one doesn’t quite function as well as it probably should. To lose the right is a lot harder than it would have been if my left hand one had been working properly.

The side effects of this have been pretty serious, and I really hope that it will go away without having to puncture the eardrum in order to relieve the pressure differential.

  • I’m not just deaf in one ear, I’m also suddenly in the posession of a 90 degree ‘dead’ angle in vision on my right hand side. This makes driving a challenge. I never realized how much visual stuff is only picked up after there is an audio cue, it’s like having some form of tunnel vision, and to make it worse, my left ear does hear these cues and my brain still hasn’t adapted to the new situation so it will cause my head to look left, which is entirely the wrong thing to do. Very confusing, and dangerous to boot. Driving the car extra careful with great attention to mirrors and situational awareness.

  • There is an associated head-ache that lasts pretty much all day and interferes with my sleeping. This in turn makes me terribly cranky.

  • I seem to have a problem understanding stuff verbally. This is the most puzzling of all, after all, my left ear is working perfectly ok, and language processing ability normally resides in the left side of the brain. But when I think about it, if I’m on the phone and only use one ear I invariably have the phone on my right hand side, but this may be a simple result of hand dominance trumping ear dominance. The nerves from each ear are wired to only one side of the brain and if you get ‘stereo’ input both brain halves will help in the processing load. If only one ear gets the input and that’s not the ‘dominant’ ear then you will have to work a whole lot harder at extracting the information from the sounds that you pick up. I never even realized I had a ‘dominant’ ear until this happened! Learn a new thing every day I guess, wished I had learned this in some different way.

  • My environment does not adapt, I need to adapt to my environment. You can only say ‘what?’ so many times before people get irritated or simply stop talking. So I have to make a conscious effort to sit with my left ear towards them and/or to look at their lips as an extra cue of what they’ve said. That’s a lot of overhead. Making up for this is incredibly tiring, probably extra because it definitely isn’t second nature to me. And people that don’t know me at all and have not yet interacted with me of course have absolutely no clue that I can’t hear them, especially if there is some environmental noise.

  • I don’t enjoy music nearly as much. Hearing music as though it is on a badly tuned shortwave radio (in mono, of course) is really not quite as nice as hearing it in both ears with half decent quality. The fact that my left ear already had a problem with high notes probably increases this substantially. I have tried playing music a few times but after only a few moments switched it off again because it just underlines my frustration.

  • Loud sounds hurt! This is the most paradoxical, but apparently the sensitivity of my other ear gets cranked up to the max as some kind of compensation. So any loud sound will hit a lot harder than it would have if the volume on the right hand side were taken into the equation (well, technically it probably is but since it’s pegged at or near ‘0’ the computations are off by quite a bit). That’s a weird one, you’d think that such a measure would operate on a per-ear basis.

  • Bone conduction still works just fine. So I get to enjoy a contiuous concert of heartbeats, chewing sounds, teeth that touch and a thousand other things that you’d normally not be aware of such as breathing or cartilage shifting. Weirdest thing.

  • I seem to have developed a new skill, I can roughly tell what the barometric pressure is doing based on what (if any) sounds I can hear on the right hand side and how bad a headache I’ve got. The scientist in me is at odds with the rest of me here, I can’t help but see this whole situation as an opportunity to experiment but at the same time I very much wish for it to go away.

After this six day glimpse into what deafness is like (and this is only one ear, I shudder to think what it would be like to have lost hearing in both ears) I’m quite ready to go back to normal, assuming nothing got permanently damaged and this blockage will clear one of these days without requiring surgery or other tricks. Incredible how gas-tight this blockage is and how long it lasts, you’d expect some kind of relief by now due to leakage. And this episode has given me a renewed respect for those that cope with loss of sensory input, the number of ways and the severity with which this sort of thing affects your life is quite frankly incredible, and experiencing it first hand has rammed that home in a very memorable fashion.

Afterword: A very kind HN user https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5813036 gave me the hint that I needed to get this solved. I’m incredibly happy, especially by finding a simple way that did not require pressure or any tools. It did take about 20 tries to get any result so if you ever have this and try this particular method don’t give up if it doesn’t work right away. Thanks again Delyan!