New Life in Old Ears – The Rit Fal Dal Effect

I experienced a strange sensory assault when I went back to India at the age of 20 as a York University student, having lived there as a child until the age of 4. Strange because the distinctive “new” smells and tastes I came across, like rose-flavoured lassi, were not actually new to me at all, but had lain undisturbed in some long unused part of the brain to the point where I had forgotten that I knew them. It’s hard to capture in words the sensation of discovering something already familiar in what purports to be new. But it was exciting.

42 years later I’ve just had a similar experience, with the overdue fitting of a pair of NHS hearing aids in Ospadal Uibhist agus Bharraigh. (“Overdue” in the sense that I should probably have sought help years ago. I have “moderate to severe” hearing loss at higher frequencies, like my dad before me – and his dad before him. This means it’s difficult for me to hear the difference between language sounds whose distinctiveness is evidenced at the upper end of a vocal spectrogram – like voiceless th and s, for example, in “thing” and “sing”.)

Even as the audiologist was still talking me through the fitting process, I found myself “rediscovering” that the word “still” does indeed start with an s. Of course, this is something that, conceptually, I “knew”. It’s just that the brain, which is a very clever piece of kit when it comes to dealing with language, had disguised from me that my failing ears were no longer picking up important distinctions, by using the redundancy which characterises all language to supply a best guess, usually accurate, at which sound I should be hearing, and allowing me to “think” that I actually had. So, although I wasn’t physically hearing a clear s, nine times out of ten I probably thought I was (if I thought about it at all). Quite disconcerting then, in a pleasant kind of way, to be confronted with the evidence of a “real” s exactly where you’d expect it, and the realisation that the sound I had thought was always there had only been supplied to me by my own imagination.

Add to that linguistic complexity the simple pleasures of clocking the starlings twittering away as soon as I walked out of the hospital, or noticing for the first time in a long while the range of sounds your shoes make when they scuff the doormat when you get home. It’s quite an intoxicating auditory brew. And, as with my earlier Indian experience and the way it rekindled memories from infancy, so again I found myself reminded of an earlier period of my life, when hearing the sound of birdsong was an unexceptional experience. I hadn’t particularly noticed its absence, but again there was something very refreshing about this reacquaintance with a familiar thing.

Then in a moment of serendipity, just as I was pondering this strange coming together of revived sensory perception and uncovered self-deception and its capacity to stimulate vivid reminiscence, and wondering if there was a name for it, Jon Blake went and revealed a hitherto unheard 40-year old recording of the Rit Fal Dals, the folk group that he and I and Chris Heron sang and played in when we were all students at York… And not just a recording – he also had 40-year old photos of the band and the city, which – as you do – he’d put together into a nice wee picture sequence on YouTube. A man of many talents. The hits have since been pouring in from the York Past & Present Facebook group, and probably other sources too. It seems I’m not alone in taking delight in recovering remembered but repressed sounds or sights.

(Jon has some other Rit Fal Dal tracks from the same recording session on his Soundcloud site.)

So can anyone help me out here? Is there a name for this syndrome, in which revived or remembered sensations stimulate forgotten memories, simultaneously affirming the enriching power of your sensory capacities while exposing their liability to wither, conceal and deceive? Until someone points me to a higher authority, I claim its discovery (or perhaps invention) and name it the Rit Fal Dal Effect… Ta dah!

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About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 26/11/2018, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Graham Barnes

    Great piece of observation and writing. I too have had a similar experience of long-standing hearing decline and then the magical NHS instant fix … but could not have written so clearly and thoughtfully as you about it. You asked about terminology and my first thoughts went not to cognitive neuroscience but to ‘everyday’ speech. As a starting point, what about the PROUSTIAN experience of ‘madeleines’ as described in “À la recherche du temps perdu”? Then there’s the common-or-garden idea of DÉJA-VU.

    • Gordon Wells

      Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Graham. I’m now going to have to brush up on my French – which would be no bad thing! Another unexpected bonus from this whole experience…

  2. Margaret Wells

    Your experience sounds really interesting, Gordon. I can tell you the other side of the hearing aid story from when I got my first hearing aid in 1988 at the age of 38. I had been quite deaf all my life and had always got by using tricks like lip-reading. When I finally realised that I needed help to hear better, I was quickly seen by a specialist and given my first hearing aid. Leaving the hospital that day, I was amazed to find that I could hear the conversation of people some distance away from me in the car park. When I got home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that sugar spilling from the packet to the bowl makes a soft, rushing sound. I knew that heavy rain made a battering sound, but I was surprised to find that gentle rain made a sound too. On the other hand, I took a while to adjust to other unexpected sounds – the rustle of my own clothes as I walked made me think there was somebody walking behind me and I got endless frights around the house!, In general, it was a surprise to find what a noisy world hearing people live in, and I still appreciate being able to turn the sound off when I remove my hearing aid at the end of the day.
    You might want to look into the idea of getting a loop system for your television so that you can have the sound going straight into your hearing aid – the family might appreciate that.

    • Gordon Wells

      Thanks, Margaret! Yes, isn’t it weird to hear your own clothes! By which I probably don’t mean “hear” so much as “notice that they make a different sound than I had thought, and which I’d stopped listening to a long time ago anyway.” Your point about being able to switch off and retreat into another quieter normality is also interesting. You mean we the hearing “impaired” have got two different settings for perceiving the auditory world around us (once we get the hearing aids)?! Wow, a bit like being bilingual then!! I’ll quiz you further about the loop system thing over the holidays. We don’t really do much television these days, and I’ve got headphones on a longish lead. On the other hand the Lord of the Rings boxset is coming down to Glasgow over the festive period…

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