The Science of Stuttering




Shattered glass

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.

References

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

Image via Ruta Saulyte-Laurinaviciene / Shutterstock.

20 Responses to “The Science of Stuttering”

  1. Pam says:

    Hi Jake,

    I disagree, and I think a lot of adults that have stuttered for years will disagree with you as well. I have stuttered since childhood – so for 40+ years – and I know a lot of other people who stutter as well, kids, teens, and adults.
    Unless you have some evidence-based research to back up your argument, I don’t think too many stutterers are going to believe your assertion that stuttering is “a deep psychological response to an increasingly alienated world.”

    And where you say “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 not the result of self-doubt, insecurity and anxiety. Reading something like this makes me angry, as I am not insecure and anxious – I just stutter, and have for most of my life.

    You mention the movie “The King’s Speech”, which was a great movie, in that it brought attention to stuttering, but implied that it is a psychological problem. It’s not, and I have a feeling a lot of people are going to question where you are coming from. I noticed that you have a BA degree in Anthropology and Social Theory, so no formal background in speech and language pathology, research, or even psychology, which you write about. Your assertion would be easier to swallow if you had the credentials to back you up.

    I think this moves stuttering backwards, instead of forward, where we need to go.

    Pam Mertz

  2. Craig J. Hause says:

    Jake, I hardly believe that a BA makes you an expert. As a Psychologist, I can tell you that your assumptions are false.

  3. Heather Grossman, PhD says:

    There are many many flaws in your conclusions Jake. You have chosen to discount a solid body of research which clearly suggests that people who stutter have a vulnerability in their speech production, not in their ability to handle a difficult world. I have worked with people who stutter for over 20 years, and can tell you that many, many children have absolutely no awareness or negative emotional reaction at all to their stuttering early on. Research is clear that stuttering runs in families and has a genetic basis. The fact that you never stuttered while talking alone or to pets does not strengthen your argument. There are many situations where people who stutter may have perfect fluency (speaking in unison with another, singing, talking in a thick accent, talking to a metronome, speaking when alone, etc) and the reason for this is that these behaviors engage different brain pathways than does natural speaking. We do not “ignore” the psychological aspect. In fact, cognitive and emotional reactions to stuttering are often more severe than the observable behaviors of stuttering, and good therapy addresses these aspects. However, the stuttering is causing negative thoughts and feelings, not the other way around.

  4. I know that this is a very emotive issue and the last thing I wanted to do was make anyone feel uncomfortable. I cannot stress enough that even if you accept that there may be psychological causes for stuttering (as I obviously do) this is in no way is the fault of the sufferer. I can not stress this enough – and I apologise if I didnt stress it enough. However, do not apologise for saying what I said – you are entitled to disregard it, and there are no doubt cases that are entirely physiological in cause, but it is also obvious that psychological trauma plays a causal role. Honesty is therapy and this must not be allowed to be buried completely. Please see the post by clinical psychologist Peter Wolson on the Huffington Post in which he expresses similar views.

  5. Bud Bultman says:

    Jake, I can tell that you have no closeness at all to anyone who stutters, know nothing about their parents and childhood, have not made this interest a lifelong persuit, and have not read all the research on stuttering. Feel free to believe what you will; feel free to agree with one man (Wolson), but there is no way that I will join you. If what you say is correct, every child in a family would stutter because of the “trauma” they had in the same household. If what you say is correct, the child who grows up with abusive parents in hectic metropolis would stutter,but the child who grows up in a loving, close knit family who worked together happily on a farm with no cares in the world in the hills on WV would not. My relatives come from the latter and all but 2 of them stuttered. A grandfather stuttered. I’ll continue to support the research here http://www.stutteringhelp.org/Default.aspx?tabid=35.
    Bud

  6. Jane Fraser says:

    For accurate information about the causes of stuttering and recent research, please visit the Stuttering Foundation at http://www.stutteringhelp.org
    It is unfortunate that so much misinformation about stuttering is on the internet to confuse those who are seeking help.

  7. ASDF says:

    Are you perhaps a sock-puppet for Jeremy Griffith?

  8. Luc De Nil says:

    I think the following sentence shows the flaw in your argument: “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.” Clearly, you conclude that ‘logic’ is a more powerful tool than ‘scientific studies’. For anyone reading the recent literature even superficially, it will be obvious that no-one these days ignores the importance of psychological factors in the development of stuttering and certainly not treatment. One recent example is the research on temperament. However, it is important to make a distinction between core causal factors and contributing factors. This is a distinction that ‘logic’ will never be able to make, only rigorous research will solve that issue. One final question – if stuttering is not a result of brain processes but of psychological processes, where exactly do you propose those psychological processes take place other than in the brain?

  9. Judy Butler says:

    If behavior is the result of a combination of nature and nurture, and if environment influences the expression of a genetic predisposition to stutter, then perhaps childhood trauma is a factor in why some children stutter. I wonder if you are speaking from personal experience but you did not share what trauma(s) may have contribured to your own speech development. I prefer to consider both the science of the day and the personal reality of the individual who stutters. This is not an either/or argument IMHO.

  10. Craig J. Hause says:

    If this is what Peter Wolson says then I disagree with him. There, one psychologist that says yes and the other says no. Jake–my point is just because one says its true doesn’t make it so.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Look at all the brilliant minds arguing with a guy with only a bachelor’s degree and a whole lot of ignorance

  12. Horace P. Bogardis says:

    Dear Jake Cunningham,

    You list that you have a Bachelor of Artsa degree. Is this accurate?

    Your college gave you a B.A. degree? They should have given you a B.S. degree instead.

    Are you paying any college loans still? If so, get your money back because you were given the wrong degree.

    My feelings on this matter are as loud and clear as the bells of St. Mary’s

  13. Ronald says:

    Hello Jake,

    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. I must apologize for some of the comments above (being a stutterer myself).

    I’ve found from stuttering groups on the internet that rude comments seem to be the norm on this topic, and all the best experts seem to stutter… Your level of degree, BA or whatever it is, is of no relevance to this at all, and I can’t believe people are having a go at you for this?!?! The brightest people I seem to come across, dropped out of school and starting using their own mind. Maybe you were just bright enough to leave the education scene before you learned misleading knowledge that eventually you’d have to unlearn anyway. Well done for that Jake!

    Your article was very concise and I must disagree with the previous posters. I’d say you’ve got it pretty much spot on. There’s no need to convince anyone else. I’ve got a feeling over the next decade or so, this point of view will be accepted and those who are slating you now, will feel very silly indeed. It’s all in the mind!

    Thanks again Jake for sharing your ideas (free of charge), and best of luck!

    Ronald M Bruin

    • Pam says:

      Ronald,

      Why would you apologize for some of the comments above? Please don’t apologize for mine – the first one.
      I find it hard to believe that you stutter, and feel this is “all in our mind.” That makes it sound like it’s am emotional, histrionic condition that could be eliminated if we just tried hard enough.

      I have stuttered since I was 5 years old, and trust me, it’s not all in my mind.

      And some of the other comments here are written by the best minds in the field, who have many, many years of clinical and research experience to back up their claims that psychological issues are NOT the root cause of stuttering.

      It is certainly appropriate for you to express your opinions, but please don’t apologize for the rest of us for doing the same.

      Pam

      • Ronald says:

        Hello Pam,

        Thank you for your reply. I didn’t intend for you to take any offense by my comment… I only expressed what I was thinking at the time.

        It’s great you have your own opinions on stuttering too. A long time ago, the best minds in the world believed the earth was flat.

        I have stuttered since as long ago as I can remember. I couldn’t even speak until the age of 11. Now at 43, it is barely noticeable. I have done every therapy under the sun (something I regret tremendously as I believe speech therapy can do major damage to a stutterer, and even in some cases ensure they stay a stutterer for the rest of their lives…)

        Ten years ago I thought the same as you do now. My transformation has come about, through gaining a real understanding of stuttering and this guy’s article goes along with what I believe today. I was just a little concerned why people would put Jake down for his BA. Some parents can’t afford to send their children to University. That doesn’t mean anything. Learning isn’t important in stuttering. I found it takes a lot of unlearning…

        Surly an expert in stuttering (knowing what it’s really about), would not stutter, right? There are thousands of people who have cured and overcome their stuttering. It amazes me why some still seek scientific evidence when it is everywhere. I think we should learn from these people, not from speech pathologists who have no idea, even with 20, 30, 40 years experience.

        Like I said Pam, no malice was intended in my original post (or this one!:)). I wish you good day.

        Kind Regards,

        Ron

        • Ronald says:

          To add one more thing that was kind of nagging me, after re-reading this thread…

          You say “the best minds” From the way a couple of posters mock a BA and convey their message; I personally find their minds rather closed and childlike and somewhat arrogant in their views (this is honestly what I felt when reading them).

          Craig especially stood out with –

          “Jake, I hardly believe that a BA makes you an expert. As a Psychologist, I can tell you that your assumptions are false.”

          This is no great mind (maybe to some it could be, but I didn’t stand back and think to myself “This guy is someone I could really learn from”… I’m sorry if Craig won a Nobel prize or something, but it just doesn’t sound like a great mind to me.

          Einstein, Tesla, Dawkins they are “great minds” and a couple of them certainly didn’t get a 1st at University.

          That’s all I needed to get off my chest. I wish everyone here success in overcoming stuttering. It was such a big part of my life for so many years, and letting go of it, was the hardest thing I will ever do. We can all disagree and have debates, but at the bottom of it is stuttering, and I respect you all, it’s not easy sometimes, I know.

          Best Wishes,

          Ron

          • Pam says:

            Thanks for the clarification Ron! Yes, stuttering is mightily complex, and I think that’s why people (including you and me) get so heated about our opinions.

            My comment about “great minds” refers to people in the communications field who have spent years working with and researching stuttering.

            I wasn’t mocking Jake’s BA degree – I simply noted that it was in anthropology and social theory, and not communications disorders. I try never to mock anyone, as I know personally what that is like, because of stuttering.

            I imagine we could debate this till the cows come home – I suppose we shouldn’t hijack someone’s blog to do so. :)
            I invite you to check out my site, and read my blog and listen to conversations about stuttering. http://www.stuttterrockstar.com

            Pam

  14. It’s an interesting discussion. I have worked with quite a few stutterers with varying degrees of success.
    I do have to admit though that when I have traced the stutter back to childhood memory, I have managed to help the person greatly reduce or even eliminate the stutter.
    But it isn’t always that successful and I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert in communication.
    Pam, your link to the website didn’t seem to work which is a shame, because any further learning in this field is always welcome to me.
    Best
    Chris

  15. [...] She might recommend a speech therapy evaluation to help your daughter work on her speech.When toddlers stutter I am a 30-year-old mother of three girls (5 years, 2 years and 8 months old). … words. As a teen, I used to stutter, and I still do a little bit in certain situations. Is her [...]

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Jake Cunningham, BA

Jake Cunningham, BA, holds a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Anthropology and Social Theory. He has been thinking about the deeper issues of life since his early teens. He enjoys reading questions, occasionally answering them, and trying to discuss and write about the real questions facing humanity.
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