The Cat Telephone

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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: In 1929 two Princeton researchers, Ernest Glen Wever and Charles W. Bray, wired a live cat into a telephone system and replayed the telephone's primal scene. Following a procedure developed by physiologists, Wever and Bray removed part of the cat's skull and most of its brain in order to attach one electrode to the animal's right auditory nerve and a second electrode to another area on the cat's body. Those electrodes were then hooked up to a vacuum tube amplifier by sixty feet of shielded cable located in a soundproof room (separate from the lab that held the cat). After amplification, the signals were sent to a telephone receiver. One researcher made sounds into the cat's ear, while the other listened at the receiver in the soundproof room (Wever and Bray 344). The signals picked up off the auditory nerve came through the telephone receiver as sound. "Speech was transmitted with great fidelity. Simple commands, counting and the like were easily received. Indeed, under good condition the system was employed as a means of communication between operating and sound-proof rooms" (Wever and Bray 345). After their initial success, Wever and Bray checked for all other possible explanations for the transmission of sound down the wire. They even killed the cat to make sure there was no mechanical transmission of the sounds apart from the cat's nerve: "[A]fter the death of the animal the response first diminished in intensity, and then ceased" (Wever and Bray 346). As the sound faded from their cat microphone, it demonstrated in the animal's death that life itself could power a phone or any other electro-acoustic system-perhaps that life itself already did power the telephone. To put a Zen tone to it, the telephone existed both inside and outside Wever and Bray's cat and, by extension, people. They believed that they had proven the so-called telephone theory of hearing, which had fallen out of favor by the late 1920s. Here it is worth understanding both their error and their subsequent contribution to hearing research. While Wever and Bray thought they were measuring one set of signals coming off the auditory nerve, they were actually conflating two sets of signals. The auditory nerve itself either fires or does not fire and therefore doesn't have a directly mimetic relationship to sound outside of it-there is no continuous variation in frequency or intensity, as you would have with sound in air. A series of experiments in 1932 revealed that the mimetic signals they found were coming from the cochlea itself. Called "cochlear microphonics," these signals were responsible for the sounds coming out of Wever and Bray's speaker in the soundproof room. Hallowell Davis wrote in a 1934 paper on the subject: The wave form of the cochlear response differs from that of the nerve. From the latter we recover a series of sharp transients having the wave form and the polarity characteristics of nerve impulses [which fire three to four thousand times a second in the auditory nerve but only about a thousand times a second in the midbrain], while the cochlear response reproduces with considerable fidelity the wave form of the stimulating sound waves. Even the complex waves of the human voice are reproduced by it with the accuracy of a microphone, while from most nervous structures there is so much distortion and suppression of high frequencies that speech may be quite incomprehensible. (Davis 206) Davis thus suggested that nerves are bad circuits for reproducing sounds, but the cochlea is an excellent circuit for reproducing sound-much like a microphone. Davis and his collaborators' work on cochlear transmissions paved the way for a wide range of subsequent research, and cochlear microphonics are still important today. While they did challenge Wever and Bray's conclusions about the telephone theory of hearing, Davis and his collaborators continued down the same epistemological path where ears and media were interchangeable; in fact, one was best explained in terms of the other. One of the most widely acknowledged and controversial achievements of this work has been the development of cochlear implants. Previous treatments for hardness of hearing...

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In this article, we explore a set of conceptual and technoscientific shifts that led to reconsiderations of the experience of hearing over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and most specifically, hearing through the use of cochlear implants (CIs). In doing so, we focus on the factors that are thought to contribute to CI users’ experiences of sound, including their potentially distinctive sensoria and neural profiles, as they navigate the spaces of their day-to-day lives as both the bearers of objective audiograms and subjective listeners. These factors are increasingly broad, ranging from age of implantation, electroacoustic stimulation sent from the device, and cognitive profiles considered to correlate with complex developmental processes related to early sound environments and language exposure (oral or manual). Hearing, in this perspective, is a phenomenon that varies between individuals, over the course of the life (or day) of a single person, and according to experiences with auditory devices. Such a conceptualization undermines dichotomous representations of hearing and deafness and an increasingly substantial gray zone emerges between the two. Both are ever more conceived of as developmental processes in which a variety of signals and their transductions are considered central to understandings of how experiences of hearing take shape.
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