"So You Want to Be a Human Guinea Pig?"
by Dan Kapelovitz
Have you ever wondered where your money goes when you pay taxes? Well, a small portion of your hard-earned cash--an extremely small portion--goes to me. You see, I’ve worked on and off (mostly off) as a human guinea pig for a research institution that is funded, in part, by government grants. But don't fret; your money is being put to good use. In addition to supporting my expensive glue-sniffing habit, you are paying to, literally, give hearing to the deaf.
If I ever need a little extra dough (because I’m low on sniffable glue), I work as a test subject at the oddly named House Ear Institute (“HEI”), named after its founder, Dr. Howard House. When conservative talk show hosts go deaf (likely the result of nasty pain-killer addictions), they are often surgically implanted with a device (a "cochlear implant") that converts sound waves into electronic pulses, which they then can interpret as meaningful sounds. (HEI is also associated with the prestigious House Ear Clinic, where Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan used to score their high-tech hearing aids.)
How does a so-called normal hearing human being like me fit into this equation? Basically, scientists (and a dude named "Bear") test my "normal" hearing against those people who have undergone the cochlear-implant operation. By simulating the cochlear implant with normal-hearing people, they hope to improve the implant for deaf people.
For most tests, I sit in a sound-proof booth. It's like the sensory deprivation tank in "Altered States," except that, instead of floating in salt water in complete darkness, I sit on a chair, staring at a computer.
During a typical experiment, the researchers put sounds through the implant simulation. I'm supposed to tell the difference between words such as "chop" and "shop." Sounds easy, but these words end up sounding more like "chshawhpp" and "shchawhpp." Of course, there are no wrong answers--I just have to push whatever response button I think is closest to the sound.
Other times, I have to differentiate between the nearly identical sounds "hod" and "hawed."
"There is no difference between 'hod' and 'hawed'," I protest.
"Yes, there is," says Bear. "One is pronounced 'hod' and the other is pronounced 'hawed.' Hod. Hawed. Hod. Hawed. Hod. Hawed. Get it?"
"No. I don't get it. It's the same sound. And what is a 'hod' anyway?"
Apparently, it's a tool that bricklayers use to hoist a load of bricks up a ladder. (I guess, you learn some new useless information every day.)
Bear continues to explain the difference between these absurd words. "'Hod' sounds like 'god,' and 'hawed' sounds like 'dog,' get it?"
"No," I say. "'God' and 'dog' contain the same vowel sound, you moron!"
Worse, when they put "hod" and "hawd" (as well as "heed," "had," "hud," "hid," "head," "hayed" and "hoed" through the simulator, the words all just sound like white noise. No wonder Rush Limbaugh doesn't understand anything anybody says to him. In truth, the real cochlear implant must sound a lot better than the simulation, as a lot of deaf people are able to hear quite well with the device. (One scientist who used to work at HEI had a cochlear implant, and he could understand pretty much everything I said, even over the telephone.)
As for me, after listening to a half hour of static and pushing random buttons, I'm ready to go on a kill spree.
Before each assignment, I have to undergo a hearing test, to make sure that my hearing is still "normal." The researchers put headphones over my ears, and I'm supposed to push a button every time I hear a beep. I barely pass each time; listening to loud music over the years has caused me to have a "notch" in my hearing at four kilohertz, meaning that I have a sharp dip in my audiogram around this frequency. However, if I were so inclined, I could easily cheat my way through the screening test by just pushing the button every few seconds; there's bound to have been a beep in there somewhere.
Once I failed the hearing screening and was refused work. "Isn't it ironic?" I thought at the time. "I've devoted my time and energy to help the disabled, yet I'm being refused a job opportunity because of a slight disability." Luckily, it turned out my hearing was okay, and they let me work.
As guinea-pig jobs go, the experiments at HEI are relatively painless. At other places, human test subjects are injected with experimental drugs and can only pray that they're in the placebo group and don't grow an extra testicle. The downside, of course, is that the less intrusive and dangerous the experiment, the lower the pay. HEI typically pays $10 an hour to its human lab rats. Sometimes they only need me for two hours, in which case, after paying for gas, lunch and the coffee that I must buy just to stay awake, I'm lucky if I break even.
I've done almost every test that HEI has to offer, but my favorites are the electro-physiology experiments. The researchers attach a strange multi-colored headdress full of electrodes onto my head to record my brain's response to different sounds. I look like a space-age Mummer, or some Venice beach street performer. All I have to do is sit in a chair and try to be still while they blast weird sounds into my ear. The most difficult part is not falling asleep. In another part of the experiment, they actually want me to go to sleep while listening to the freaky beeps and noises; of course, at that point I'm wide awake. Still, it's the easiest money I've ever made.
In another easy experiment, researchers record my oto-acoustic emissions (known in the hearing business as the less-perverted-sounding term OAEs). OEAs are the sounds your ear makes in response to listening to a sound. Who knew that ears make sounds? Next I'll find out that my eyeballs are projecting light rays. Basically, they stick a microphone in my ear, play clicking noises and record my OAEs.
Interestingly, researchers at the University of Texas have found a link between OAEs and sexual orientation. It turns out that there are differences in the OAEs between men and women; however, the OAEs of lesbians are very similar to those of men. The researchers theorize that maybe some hormonal overloads might occur during pre-natal development, which may be linked to sexual preference and are reflected in the OAEs. Right now, they're measuring the OAEs of heterosexuals, homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites. As for me, my OAEs confirm that I'm a young, healthy heterosexual male--either that or an old, decrepit lesbian trapped in a straight man's body.
The wonders of science never cease to amaze.
(This article first appeared in the March 2006 issue of Men's Edge Magazine)
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