The cochlear implant is perhaps the greatest contribution science has made to overcoming deafness in the 20th century. Its introduction gave a soundtrack to people’s lives: the clanging of dinner forks, the hum of evening traffic, a baby’s cry. Now researchers have provided the reverse perspective, as the hearing-capable can find out what a cochlear implant sounds like to a deaf person.

Arizona State University scientists, led by professor of speech and hearing science Dr. Michael Dorman, encountered a patient in their lab who had lost hearing in both ears before regaining use in only one ear. “This was a tremendous help to us in understanding cochlear implants,” Doorman said. Not only could they learn the amount of speech that translated through the implant. They could now learn the quality of that speech, too.

Cochlear implants bring those who are born deaf or become deaf, through disease or injury, newfound audition. This is thanks to a piece of technology that picks up incoming sound waves, as the faulty cochlea normally would, and transfers them to the tiny hairs lining the cavity of the inner ear. These hairs then convert the waves into nerve pulses for the brain to interpret.

As Dorman demonstrates, with examples of tone and speech, the implant does a stunning job at picking up individual speech components. However, the end result may be a tad unsettling to the person expecting crystal clear sound. The most familiar analog to Dorman’s examples may be the voice of someone whose had his or her voice box removed, and must use a device to project the sound electronically.