Science Book a Day Interviews Lydia Denworth


Special thanks to Lydia Denworth for answering 7 questions about her recently featured book – I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language

I have always been a reader and a lover of words. As a child, my favorite way to spend the day was lying on my bed with a book. I still love that, though I get to do it far less often. I got hooked on the New Yorker and John McPhee in high school. I loved how McPhee could take almost anything and show you why it was interesting.  Perhaps because of that, I never aspired to write a novel, only nonfiction. – From Lydia’s Homepage

Lydia’s Homepage:
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1 – What was the impetus for I Can Hear You Whisper?

My son Alex was the first deaf or hard of hearing child I ever knew in any meaningful way. When his hearing loss was identified just before his second birthday, I felt the enormity of what I didn’t know. Research became my coping mechanism. That was natural since I was a reporter. It was several years before I realized that I wanted to write a book about what I was learning. As a parent, I felt I had an important story to tell. As a journalist, I felt I had a front-row seat to some significant scientific and cultural developments. I came to understand more clearly how sound works in the brain. I realized how much I had taken sound for granted in raising my older two boys, Jake and Matthew, who are hearing. I also got more interested in exploring the history of deafness and the science involved in cochlear implants. How was it possible to create this transformative technology that for the first time partially restored a missing sense? And why was it that some people in Deaf culture were so opposed to a technology that was designed to help them?

2 – Who are you writing this book for? What has the reaction to the book been?

I aimed for as broad an audience as possible, and the response has been really gratifying. Not surprisingly, people with deafness in their lives, especially parents of deaf children, have embraced the book. I have been getting wonderful emails from people who see their own story in mine, and who are grappling with so many of the same questions about language and culture that I did. But in addition, people who know nothing about deafness are telling me that they can’t put the book down. Sometimes they admit they weren’t sure they’d be interested, but there is so much in the story about language, learning, and the brain, about how we think about people who are different, and about what it’s really like to be deaf, that readers tell me they find themselves constantly saying, “wow, I didn’t know that.”  That’s just how I felt while I was writing the book.

3 – There are many insights into your own personal journey through this book. How did writing this book affect you personally?

Writing the story meant reliving our experience, but it also reminded me of how far we’ve come. And the writing itself was a journey. There were so many challenging aspects.  Getting the science right and making it accessible mattered and took a lot of time, but that was actually the easy part. The human elements required so much thought and care and sensitivity. Telling my family’s story—revealing enough to make it real and compelling, but still protecting my son’s privacy—was hard and forced me to think hard about what would resonate and why. You have to look at your own experience as an outsider. Exploring Deaf culture as the hearing parent of a child with a cochlear implant was probably harder still to the point of being really uncomfortable at times, but that’s what makes it interesting. Throughout the process, I had to acknowledge and try to let go of my own assumptions.

4 – The areas of science you cover for this book are far and wide ranging. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

I went where the story took me. At its heart, this is a book about the first six or seven years of a child’s life, and though it seems wide-ranging, there’s a clear progression. A hearing child is exposed to language through sound, from that experience the child learns to speak, and spoken language is fundamental in learning to read. What I realized is how much of that chain hearing people take for granted. I did, too, until I was suddenly confronted with the possible loss of sound in my son’s brain. I wanted to explore what it means to hear and communicate, to learn language, and to learn to read. Because I was a science writer, I also wanted the backstory: how did scientists figure all this out and what questions remain?

What I ended up doing was weaving together three narratives in the book—my family’s, the history of Deaf culture and the cochlear implant, and the evolving science of brain plasticity. There were so many more people I wish I could have interviewed, and so much more I learned that I wanted to include, but much of the art of writing is in the editing. I wanted to write a book people would enjoy reading and I tried to keep the storylines moving toward the point where they all would come together to inform our thinking about what a child—any child—needs in order to communicate and to learn.

5 – Cochlear implants have been around for some time. Can they get much better?

Cochlear implants are a pretty mature technology. There will continue to be improvements in areas like listening to music and hearing in noise, but the devices are unlikely to change dramatically. The real difference in the future will come from research in areas such as gene therapy and hair cell regeneration. A lot of very smart people are working very hard on figuring out how to protect or restore hearing at the level of the cell. I wouldn’t bet against them. If cochlear implants could be made to work, I believe regeneration and the like can be made to work, too. I don’t think parents today should wait though. It will probably be ten years or more before such efforts move to the clinic. I also don’t know if any of those efforts will result in a “cure” or if, as with implants, they will improve hearing to a point that makes it easier to operate.

6 – The Deaf community (or communities) were opposed to the use of cochlear implants in young children. What was their rationale for this?

For the culturally Deaf, cochlear implants were just the latest in a long line of attempted “fixes” for deafness, and implants came along just as the Deaf civil rights movement was taking hold. That movement celebrated American Sign Language and delivered the message that deafness was a difference not a disability. From that point of view, the idea of an implant was offensive and threatening. Putting the technology in children was particularly upsetting because it seemed to have the potential to destroy Deaf culture. Plus, Deaf people didn’t think implants would work any better than anything else had. Today, there are still some who are deeply opposed to cochlear implants and emotions can still be pretty raw. But there are also a lot of people in the deaf community, especially younger people, who have come around to accepting the devices. Pragmatically speaking, cochlear implants are here to stay. And they do work—not perfectly and not for everyone, but they do work. As a result, the new emphasis in the deaf community is less about opposition than about promoting the benefits of ASL and Deaf culture.

7 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’m thinking through ideas for my next book, which may well continue to explore the brain and kids and parents somehow. I wish I was further along and could tell you more! In addition to books, I do some freelance writing for various magazines and I have a new blog called Brain Waves at Psychology Today where I continue to explore issues of perception, language and learning. Anyone who’s interested can follow me there or check out my website.

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