The Science of Stutteringby Jake Cunningham, BA | May 3, 2012
A holistic examination of the condition of stuttering, particularly in young children, lends itself naturally to the science of psychology rather than biology. Stuttering is increasingly becoming recognised not as an isolated condition specific to those with an unfortunate genetic heritage but a deep psychological response to an increasingly alienated world. Stuttering affects 68 million people worldwide, with children between 3 and 8 years of age accounting for over 80% of these people. A child is incredibly sensitive and receptive to social stimulus, particularly from birth and during infancy. It is during this time as the child is adjusting to modern human life that it will often encounter an environment in which it is overwhelmed or variously adjusting to inconsistencies or abnormalities to what it expects. It is this avalanche of learning and stimulus and adjusting that is occurring that can lead to a certain level of internally generated subconscious insecurity and anxiety. This self-doubt that develops can manifest in many physical forms, with the main verbal expression being to stutter when attempting to begin speaking.
Stuttering is essentially a verbal expression of a child’s insecure and uncertain reaction to an overwhelming world. Science has spent years and years and endless reports and research on the complex mechanism of brain function and/or the physiology of jaw and facial muscles but it is more biopsychosocial approach that provides the most insight. Despite the obvious logic that there are psychological elements that contribute to stuttering in children it doesn’t stop a wave of scientific studies somehow concluding that “there is no reason to believe that emotional trauma causes stuttering.” These studies seem to focus too much on the physiological symptoms of stuttering and how to address them rather than going to the root cause of the problem which is why do the children contort and retard their normal speech in the first place. It’s no good focusing on the external effects without looking at what’s causing them (i.e. the internal/psychological state of the child).
Once a child starts to stutter, it is a compounding situation as the child begins to feel the anxiety due to failure of speech and deepening sense of frustration and depression may develop as a result. However, over time as the child matures, the stutter inevitably disappears with recent scientific studies showing that between 75% and 80% of all children who begin stuttering will stop within 12 to 24 months without speech therapy.
The latest blockbuster film about King George VI, The King’s Speech, is a modern popular example of someone struggling with a stutter. As portrayed in the film it is a psychological derived problem that King George suffered from, not a physical condition. Interestingly for a film with no action, violence or nudity it has proven to be a huge success, particularly with young audiences.
I was a stutterer during my early years, I would struggle particularly with the letter “g” and “r” and had to slow down and remind myself to breath when saying these words, particularly if I was speaking to or in front of more than one person. Even today, in my adult years, if I am flustered and tired I will stumble on certain words and letters. In my experience it was a comforting hand from an adult or some natural urging from a friend that would be the most beneficial, basically any action from the world that implied that everything was any acceptable person and I wasn’t a freak. Interestingly, I never stuttered when talking to myself or to any of the three dogs we had as pets.
Thankfully, scientific inquiry is beginning to take a more holistic view towards stuttering. Recent work by Nickok and colleagues suggests that it is quite common for brain function of schizophrenics to show similar characteristics to those of stutterers. “One would not have expected a connection between disorders as apparently varied as conduction aphasia, stuttering, and schizophrenia, yet they all seem to involve, in part, dysfunction of the same region and functional circuit.” They also postulate that the two main arms of mechanistic inquiry into stuttering, namely motor sensory perception and auditory feedback control, can be integrated to help form a more balanced and insightful direction of inquiry. I would suggest that these recent studies are not holistic enough and that there is an enormous psychological aspect that is being totally ignored. It’s all very well to discover the micro-biomechanics of what happens when people stutter but will this actually stop people stuttering? I suppose time will tell.
Having a stutter does not make one a “basket case” nor does not having a stutter make one a stable, confident individual — it is just certain childrens’ overwhelmed responses to their particular environment. Science can only take us so far in understanding why children stutter and what to do about it — however, psychological science (i.e. getting an idea of the psychological and emotional state of young stutterers) will provide the most insightful analysis. The bottom line is that stuttering does not indicate an inadequacy on behalf of the child but is merely an outward expression of some internal psychological adjustment as the child grows up in today’s fast-paced modern world.
Griffith J 2011, What is Science? The Book of Real Answers to Everything [online], pp. 13-33.
Ludlow, C. (2000). Stuttering: dysfunction in a complex and dynamic system Brain, 123 (10), 1983-1984 DOI: 10.1093/brain/123.10.1983
Miller, S. and Watson, B. (1992): The relationship between communication attitude, anxiety and depression in stutters and non-stutters. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 35, 789-798
Hickok, G., Houde, J., & Rong, F. (2011). Sensorimotor Integration in Speech Processing: Computational Basis and Neural Organization Neuron, 69 (3), 407-422 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.01.019
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