Billy 2.0 – The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser


Kaspar Hauser was a mysterious teenage boy who appeared in the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, with limited vocabulary and understanding of the world. He claimed that he’d been imprisoned in a cellar most of his life with nothing but a wooden horse to play with. History has revealed he was probably a fantasist, but his mystery has never been solved.

I first learned of Hauser from watching Werner Herzog’s unsettling and affecting portrait of his short and troubled life starring an actor called Bruno S, who wasn’t the most ordinary person himself.

The first time I watched The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, I was completely creeped out by Bruno S’ portrayal of a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, learning the names of things for the first time, trying to use a knife and fork, and reacting in a completely childlike, unaffected way to his surroundings.

I feel like Kaspar Hauser. The world I knew for 30 plus years feels slightly alien and new to me. I feel like I did when I was a child, and all of a sudden I’m unsure again how I’m supposed to behave, how I should respond to ordinary things.

I went to the hospital for a tune up a week after my first switch on, and they gave me so much more volume and clarity. As soon as the audiologist activated my new settings and started speaking, I realised words sounded different for the first time. I could hear the beginning, middle and end of words. They had a shape and a texture. Before I’d only ever heard the rhythm of speech. The vowels and nothing more.

Before I left, the audiologist told me something I won’t forget for a while. “We don’t like implanting people like you. It doesn’t usually turn out well. But our assessments showed that you were someone who might have a better quality of life if we gave you this technology. We think you’ll make the most of it.”

They prefer to give cochlear implants to people who’ve been deafened for two or three years, maybe ten or twenty at a stretch, whose brains have the memory of sound and speech. Someone like me, born deaf and never having actually understood what sound is, has a much lower chance of succeeding.

Case in point – before I left, she played me two sounds, and asked me to identify which was the low frequency, and which was the high frequency. I could immediately hear the two sounds were different. The higher frequency sound was obvious to me too – it was the more high pitched sound obviously.

WRONG. I got them completely the wrong way round. The sounds that I thought were low, were high, and the sounds I thought were high, were low. I could differentiate them, but not describe them in a way that she understood or that correlated with the ‘correct’ understanding of sound.

Next, I went to see the Listening Therapist. She took me into the kitchen on my own, and turned on the taps, boiled the kettle, turned on the microwave, opened drawers – and I could hear them all, and they all sounded different to one another. Then she decided to test me on my comprehension of speech.

She asked me to look at a list of words – a short version and a longer version. For example:


She’d say the words 12 times in total, and she wanted me to repeat the word I thought she was saying, without lipreading.

We went through about 12 pairs of words, my heart sinking with each pair, thinking I couldn’t hear the difference at all and she’d be so disappointed in me.

At the end, when she turned her paper over and showed me rows and rows of ticks for all the correct answers I’d given, I felt lightheaded.

Four days later, and I’ve heard lots of new things. Champagne glasses clinking as we celebrate my wife’s new job. My son’s breath as he sleeps in my arms. The rattle of a supermarket trolley. The tannoy on a commuter train. The clacking of the keyboard as I type this. Most amazingly of all, my son’s crying now feels like an actual physical pain every time I hear it.

I spent a day at my parents’ flat this week, a day when I was supposed to be writing a script and creating a risk assessment for filming. Instead I sat at the table in front of the laptop, and listened. I could hear hammering and drilling in the flat below me, a motorbike passing by outside, the sound my own breath made over my teeth when I inhaled sharply, the creaking of the chair as I shifted my bodyweight, the clink every time I set my glass down on the table. Everything I did made a unique and interesting sound.

I started listening at 11.30am. By the time my parents came home, it was 2pm, I was still listening and no work was done.

At the same time my brain learns to accept all these new inputs and frequencies, it’s increasing its own tolerance, and everything is becoming quieter again. I’m itching for a re-up already.

It’s nice to have a sense of everyday wonder and discovery about the world – like I did as a child – but it’s tiring too. I can’t filter out sound. Sound is different now. It’s in my actual head and it makes me flinch, wince and jump when I’m least expecting it. At the end of each day I just want to crawl back into my cave and sleep for a long time.

On balance, it’s awesome.

Further Watching:
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (full length, subtitled)

10 Replies to “Billy 2.0 – The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser”

  1. It’s a fascinating journey isn’t it? And this is only 1 week in. You have so much more to come! Hard to believe maybe, but you have so much more to look forward to.

    I took part in a clinical trial and they played pairs of pure tones at different pitches, high and low. Like you, I could tell the difference (usually) but it is incredibly difficult to say which is high or which is low – they told me this test was tricky for hearing people too. But I do think understanding pitch is a learned thing.

    Aren’t all these sounds so lovely, crisp and clear? 🙂

    1. I wouldn’t say crisp and clear just yet – but for me the most exciting thing is hearing those variations in pitch. I knew about them, but never experienced them before.

  2. Fascinating, being unable to distinguish high from low tones for me would be like being unable to tell up from down.

    It raises some interesting questions of philosophy regarding subjective experience. For instance how do I know that what I “see” as the colour green is what you “see” as the colour green. Our eyes might be tuned to different sections of the EM spectrum and we might be “seeing” completely different colours entirely. We might only be calling them green because from childhood we have been told that grass is green and that over there is grass.

    I am not sure what you hearing properly for the first time says about subjective experience but good luck with it anyway. But be careful there is an old saying about not staring out the window ALL morning when at work because you will have nothing to do in the afternoon. Well there same can apply to hearing. Must be like exploring a whole new Universe!

    1. High and low are just labels given to create a shared experience of sound – but that’s fairly straightforward.

      There’s a fascinating video on YouTube of a blind man describing colours – am getting it transcribed and it’ll be the subject of a future post I think.

  3. Billy,
    I welled up reading this. Seriously. It took me about 3 or 4 attempts to get through it. I’m not deaf, nor do I have any kind of impediment. I’ve got two young kids who share my good fortune and this just made me glad to be alive and re-appreciate their fascination with the world. Super stuff.
    More please!

  4. Just a note to say what an amazing story. I followed the link from B3ta out of pure curiosity as it’s rare a blog will make it to the popular links page. All I’ll say is that it was worth it. One of the things that touched me most was your reference to your kid and I immediately empathized with it. Best of luck and I look forward to reading more of your experiences. Christmas and New year 🙂

  5. I couldn’t really even start to relate to hearing sound for the first time. But I’ve had laser eye surgery and what you said about not being able to filter stuff out resonates. I see so much more moving in my vision which pulls my attention and sometimes I’d really like to take my glasses off and sink into a fluffy fuzz of indistinct shapes and colours that it turns out I used to find comforting. Seeing properly is incredible, but changing what you’re used to is always weird, I guess.
    Thanks for writing your stuff down.

  6. I just found your blog and enjoyed reading your posts a lot. I remember very clearly the moment when, some two or three months after activation, things started to sound more or less normal — and I thought how boring is that! Enjoy those first months of really strange sensations. And best wishes for the future.
    (I’m very much looking forward to your reflections of the further process. )

  7. I really like your analogy with Kaspar Hauser. Brilliant take on what it’s like in the early days!

    Very interesting what the audiologist said to you: the second part is clear, that you are sitting up and taking notice of the complexity of the soundscape around you. That’s what the psychological evaluations prior to implantation are for, I think – they want people who are keen to work with their CIs to maximise their potential.

    The first part sounds a little brutal and I’m not entirely sure that it reflects reality. I’ve been getting a sense for a while that the boundaries for implantation are being stretched, and very successfully. Ten years ago when we made enquiries we were told it wouldn’t be considered for someone who had been so profoundly deaf for so long, but a few years later, the boundaries had shifted and I was considered a suitable candidate.

    I’m not deaf from birth, but early and very long-term deafened, and the hospital actually told me that that particular group are among the better performers. That might just have been said to reassure me before implantation, but I suspect that early and long-term deafened people share similar spectacular gains with born deaf folks.

    For people who have been implanted following relatively recent hearing loss it is more a case of rediscovering what they were used to: not that it isn’t also a spectacular recovery for them, but they do benefit from familiarity with sound to start off with. We have to make up a lot of ground, but I think it makes it a much more interesting and enriching process for us.

    I hope you had a happy Christmas hearing all those unique Christmas noises – crackers and groans at the terrible cracker jokes for starters.

Leave a Reply