Unraveling the Stuttering Enigma: The Role of Time & Control

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Written by Matthew O’Malley

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In my last post, I talked about automatic abilities quite a bit.  In case you have not read that post, I would like to define an automatic ability again.  When we are learning any skill (walking, talking etc.), it requires attention and conscious effort to execute properly.  However, once we have worked on a skill enough times, we reach a level of mastery.  At this time, the amount of conscious effort and attention that is required to execute the now mastered skill is extremely minimized.  When we are at this level we are able to execute the skill virtually on “automatic”.

This will tie in later in the post.

Let me talk a little about the skill of speaking.  Again, for most people (people who do not stutter), speaking is an automatic ability that they are able to do with minimal effort.  They just know how to do it and they just do it.

To demonstrate the nature of an automatic ability to yourself, take out a pen and piece of paper.  We are going to use the mastered skill/automatic ability of writing in this example.  Write three sentences in your native language and observe the movements of your hand.  Observe how you write each letter properly without thinking about how to make the movements; without dedicating a lot of attention to properly controlling the movements.  I find it kind of miraculous.  We are just able to do it.  We know how to do it and we just do it.  We have mastered this skill and therefore we can make these movements on automatic.  To me it is almost ghostly when I observe myself writing in that I am not consciously controlling my hand but it is perfectly executing the proper movements to write exactly what I intend to write.

SIDENOTE:  Imagine if you were watching somebody write, and all of a sudden they started writing the first letter of a word over and over.  You could tell they were struggling and embarrassed.  They experienced a block in between the writing of these letters and stopped writing.  Then after about five first letter repetitions they wrote the whole word they were intending and continued on to the next word.  A few words later, the same thing happened.  This is fairly analogous to what happens with speech and stuttering.

So in continuing, in my last post I also explained why the skill of speaking is different from skills like walking, jogging and riding a bike.  I explain this in detail in the post but will be concise here.  Speaking is different in that you are expressing thought which is metaphysical.  Jogging, biking etc. are skills whose intent is to do something physical; not express something metaphysical (thoughts, words etc.).  But one might rebut, that the skills of writing and typing also express metaphysical thought.  Why don’t people have stuttering behaviors and blocks with these skills?

The answer:  Time.  Let me explain.

Photo Credit: mainecoonmom1 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: mainecoonmom1 via Compfight cc


Time’s relationship with speaking

The skill of speaking is a profound form of self-expression.  We are quickly able to express our thoughts, ideas, dreams and personality through speech.  What we express through speaking manifests and is heard by our listeners in real time.  In other words, as we execute the skill of speaking (moving our articulators (lips, tongue etc.), vibrating vocal folds, breathing etc.) we are heard, evaluated and judged based on what we say and how we say it immediately.  Our listeners react to what we say very shortly after we say it.  The skill of speaking is used for real time interactions.  Therefore, at the time we speak we immediately get feedback from our listeners about what we expressed and how we expressed it.  This feedback can be good or bad.  If we tell a joke and everybody laughs we are pleased with the immediate feedback we have received.  We feel good about the interaction.  If we say something inappropriate, can’t carry a conversation or are awkward in how we speak and interact, the feedback is negative.  During and after the speaking interaction we likely feel bad or embarrassed.  Again this feedback comes virtually instantaneously.  Concisely, as we speak in real time, we are judged in real time.  With the act of speaking there is time pressure.

This is different from typing and writing.

Time’s relationship with typing and writing

Like speaking, in typing and writing we can also express our thoughts, ideas, dreams and personality.  However, with these skills, we can take as much time as we want crafting what we write or type before “releasing” it and receiving feedback on it.  In other words, with writing and typing there is no time pressure.  We can sit in the comfort of our homes or offices, without observing eyes and ears and take our time to craft a message to be exactly what we want before we share it with another individual.  With these skills, there is no time pressure.  We craft a message exactly how we want it to be using as much time as we want before anybody sees it.  There is no time pressure.

The fact that how we speak and what we say is heard and judged in real time results in a desire/need to control our speech to prevent negative feedback.  This results in complicating the stuttering condition and is a cyclical problem as I will explain next.

Photo Credit: zacarious via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: zacarious via Compfight cc


As humans there are two elements (and others) I will address that are part of our nature that contribute to stuttering.  Each element individually does not cause stuttering and is usually advantageous to us, but the clashing of these two elements of human nature results in the complication of the condition we call dysfluency/stuttering.  Element number one is our ability to master skills.  As stated earlier, once a skill is mastered we are able to do it on automatic/unconscious mode requiring very little attention and effort.  This automatic/unconscious mode is far more efficient than a manually and consciously controlled skill.  As a matter of fact, once a skill has been mastered and can be done on automatic mode, manual control by the conscious mind will significantly interfere with and inhibit the efficiency of the execution of this skill.

To demonstrate this to yourself, try controlling every movement of your writing manually to consciously shape each letter.  It will significantly slow you down.  Now, let go of control, write naturally and let your writing be automatic and you will see which one is more efficient.

Being able to execute skills on automatic is a human ability and one element of human nature.  When we master a skill, doing this skill becomes virtually automatic.  On its own, this is a great ability and allows us to be very efficient at many things.

The second element of human nature at play here is the mind’s ability to identify situations that can cause us harm, embarrassment or pain.  When the mind encounters a situation that resembles a past experience that caused some form of significant negative emotion, it will go on higher alert.  It goes on this higher alert in order to allow you to better control the situation to prevent the same negative experience that happened as a result of being in a similar situation in your past.  Usually, this ability and element of human nature is beneficial.  After all, if a situation caused me harm in the past, I would like to be on high alert so I can better control it and avoid the same result.

Quickly, I must tie in what I shared about speaking and time to this.  Because speaking is judged in real time, if we have had situations in our past where we had a significantly negative experience during a speaking interaction, our minds will begin to identify speaking situations as potentially harmful.  As a result it will go on high alert in an attempt to control the situation to avoid the same pain.

In continuing, the two elements of human nature I shared (1.  Automatic abilities  2.  Mind’s ability to identify potentially harmful situations and its attempt to control them) combine to contribute to stuttering.  When we, as people who stutter, enter a speaking situation, our minds go on high alert and want to control the situation to avoid past embarrassment we have experienced as a result of dysfluency/stuttering cropping up in interactions.    This heightened awareness and need to control runs counter to implementing the automatic ability of speaking.

The mastered skill of speaking is only meant to be executed on automatic.  The conscious controlling mind is incapable of executing the quick, precise movements of the speech articulators in conjunction with vocal fold vibration as well as breath control all in sync.  It must be done on automatic by the subconscious.  The problem is people who stutter, like myself, have had so many negative speaking experiences, that every time we interact with another human being, the natural ability of our mind to identify situations in which we might be harmed alerts when we enter a speaking situation.  As a result of this higher alert, the mind also triggers a desire and need to control our speech to avoid the same pain we have experienced in past speaking situations.

In summary, the minds desire to control potentially harmful situations interferes with the inherently automatic nature of speech resulting in the condition of dysfluency/stuttering.  Fluent speech has to be automated and controlled unconsciously.  The unconscious mind must operate the speech mechanism without interference from the conscious controlling mind.  There is no other way to do it at a mastered level.  However, when the mind begins triggering high alert in every speaking situation, the conscious mind attempts to control an ability that only functions properly on automatic (speaking).  This contributes to stuttering.

This is partly why “the more important the speaking situation” the more likely we are to stutter.  Because the situation is important to us we feel there is a lot on the line in the interaction.  We really want it to go well.  This causes us to want to control it more.  This causes the mind’s awareness to be even more heightened triggering a larger desire to control the situation and control our speech.  When we are alone or talking to our dog the mind does not go on heightened alert because it knows there is nothing at stake in the interaction.  This removes the trigger to control your speech, which paradoxically allows you to speak using your “automatic mode” of speaking thus resulting in fluent speech.  The enigma and paradox of stuttering:  Letting go of control enhances control.

This cycle is self-fulfilling.  Every time we speak, we go on higher alert which causes us to try to control our speech to avoid embarrassment etc.  As a result of trying to control our speech, our speech cannot go on “automatic” resulting in stuttering/dysfluency because we are trying to control an ability that can’t be controlled by the conscious mind.  As a result of the stuttering, our fear of speaking situations is reinforced and worsened, thus causing the mind to go on even higher alert in the next speaking situation.  This higher alert will cause an increased need to control our speech to avoid pain resulting in more stuttered speech.  This cycle continues and the stuttering condition perpetuates and can take on more complex manifestations.


6 thoughts on “Unraveling the Stuttering Enigma: The Role of Time & Control

  1. As a PWS one thing is common in all of us which is PEOPLE APPROVAL.
    During typing, driving , writing and speaking type of activities i often noticed myself that everything were happening unconsciously/automatically until someone start noticing me or judging my work.
    When i encounter someone then all of the things which were happening consciously now comes to conscious level and i start pretending perfectionism and tried not to do any mistake but the more i tried not to do mistakes and the more i made mistakes similarly the more i stutter with conscious and controlled speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not a PWS but this article rings very true. Did you ever get pulled over from driving for a routine police check, only to find that when going to drive away you are over-thinking the act of driving (in order to perform correctly in front of the authorities) and are almost incapable of correctly starting the engine, finding a gear, disengaging the clutch and accelerating away in a controlled manner?
    Have you ever critically examined the typing of a computer programmer and seen how the most fluent typist in the world, when under pressure, suddenly makes reams of mistakes and has to spend half the time hitting to correct their typos.
    Ever watched a catwalk casting and marveled at how it’s actually possible to walk badly (plus you’re twice as likely to snap a heel) when you’re concentrating hard enough on how to do it.
    Stage fright seems able to affect a wide range of actions. Autonomous actions are definitely best left unforced.


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