Sometimes I still hear the insistent screeching, like an angry flock of birds or the screaming of the wind in a hurricane. It’s the same unearthly noise that millions of bat-like creatures made as they swarmed out of the open gates of hell in a horror movie I saw once. But now the noise only creeps in at the edges of my consciousness during quiet moments, like a barely remembered bad dream. It’s one of the many strange sounds in my head that have come and gone since the day I woke up with severe hearing loss several years ago.
On that day, though I could barely hear in the real world, I awoke to a cacophony in my head. I’ve since learned these sounds were a side effect from the kind of sudden hearing loss I encountered. They were different and louder than the tinitus, or ringing in the ears, that I had always lived with. It was not painful, but it was very distracting. It was as if a loud construction site was outside my window, with jack hammers, dump trucks and other heavy machinery going at full volume. These noises receded in the first several months after the hearing loss, but as they settled into a constant background presence, others came to the fore, which collectively created a never-ending and constantly changing symphony of sound.
One noise, a familiar high-pitched whine, comes and goes. It took me a while to recognize what it reminded me of, but then I realized it’s exactly like someone working with a gasoline-powered chain saw on a tree somewhere in the neighborhood, with the whine rising and falling as the saw works its way through the wood, then occasionaly dropping down to a much lower pitch as it idles when the blade chain isn’t engaged. Another sound, which maintains a constant pitch and volume day and night, is equally familiar and took me nearly as long to place. If you’re my age, you may have watched Sky King, one of the early weekly dramas in the 1950s that helped usher out TV’s Golden Age. My main memory is of the hero always in trouble as he piloted his two-engine prop over Texas, radioing his assistant Penny who was by turns cool as a cucumber and mortally terrified. In the background you would hear the constant high-pitched hummmmmmm of the plane’s engines. The hum never seemed to end and in fact got in the way of my enjoyment of the show. It’s the same sound effect 1950s movies about World War II fighter pilots used.
These noises join a number of others. All seem to reside somewhere in the middle of my head. More gravitate toward the left side, where my hearing is much worse, but if I concentrate hard I can isolate which noises seem to emanate from what ear. In addition to the airplane engine that is a constant on the left side, and the chain-saw whine that comes and goes on the right side, there is an ongoing, high-pitched “hissing” on both sides that is like the tinnitus noise I always experienced, but much louder. Then, on the left again, there is a not-unpleasant bubbling exactly like the sound an air-filter pump makes in a small tropical fish tank. There is also a steady buzzing like the loud electrical hum you hear from a transformer on a telephone pole when you’re walking down a quiet country lane on a hot summer day.
I’m told the noises are after-effects from the damage my hearing nerves suffered when excess fluid from my Meniere’s disease created pressure in my inner ears, and when my auto-immune system went haywire and dispatched anti-bodies to attack them. My otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat specialist who is also a surgeon) told me my injured hearing organs are much like an aging football player’s arthritic knees. Every once in a while, the old injuries will act up, there will be a little swelling, and the sounds in my head will get louder. I liked this analogy because it sounded somewhat macho. But the problem with damage to your inner ears is that, unlike your knees, there’s not a heck of a lot of room for swelling in there. So it doesn’t take much of a change in the weather, the onset of allergy season or more than a touch of a common cold for the noises in my head to start acting up.
There is one more effect I’ve experienced from the sounds in my head. I hesitate to mention it because it’s so strange. For over a year after my sudden hearing loss, I heard a musical chord that played constantly, like an organ that was stuck. The chord’s key would change occasionally in discernible ways; I could even hum the various notes of the chord in whatever key my brain had set it to play that day. It was very, very weird and more than a little unsettling, but at least the chord always seemed to be in tune and harmonious. (It was unlike my experience with music generated in the real world, which was and remains a complete discordant jumble of noise because of the distortion of my hearing). After living with this musical chord for several months, I discovered that if I used a strange filtering trick I found my brain could play, I was able to physically select the tones that I would hear most loudly and suppress the others, and thereby “play” simple songs in my head. This wasn’t the familiar process of humming to oneself or remembering a tune. It was using the real sounds in my head to make actual music that my inner ear would generate and my brain would hear. One morning I played God Bless America successfully from beginning to end, using this newly learned trick of filtering and calibrating the music in my ears to specific tones. I played it several times.
But then, to my horror, I couldn’t turn the song off. It repeated itself constantly throughout the day, and in quiet moments it was the most prominent thing I heard. God Bless America continued playing into the next morning before I finally figured out how to turn it off. By thinking hard about a complicated Bach fugue my father used to play on the piano, I was able to program my brain to replace God Bless America with the most prominent of the four melodies in the fugue. For a while, my brain got stuck repeating the new melody. But when I tried to direct the musical tones in my head to intertwine the four tunes in the fugue in the way Bach had written it, the music became scrambled for a short time, then locked back into the familiar chord. All I can figure is that my futile attempt to recreate the fugue had somehow disrupted the endless cycle. Bach’s complex composition had overwhelmed the capacity of my brain to fully comprehend it, as it has so many others over the centuries. Thankfully the chord receded in prominence in the first year after my sudden hearing loss. I can still occasionally program tunes in my head, but the chord is much less intrusive than it was. It remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve done a lot of reading on tinnitus and the other noises that the hearing organs spontaneously generate in the brain. Unfortunately, about all I’ve learned is that there is precious little known or understood about the whys and hows of this effect. I suppose it’s awfully hard to study something that in many instances can only be described by the person experiencing the phenomenon. Because the noise resides entirely in the brain, it must be difficult if not impossible to isolate and measure with today’s diagnostic equipment. But my quest for understanding will continue. I would love to hear from other people who’ve had their own experiences with the noises that inhabit their heads.