Mental Action: What Is It & How Can It Be Harnessed?

Written by Matthew O’Malley

Traduction Française – Maitriser Notre Action Mentale

In this post, I am introducing a new term; mental action.  I like this term “mental action” as it brings different connotations and implications than terms/words like “thoughts” or “thought processes”.  The connotations it brings are important for some of what I will be trying to get across.  With the term “mental action”, there is an implication that the person doing the mental action is responsible for it.  With terms like “thought” or “thought process” there is more of an implication that the thinker (you or me) is simply experiencing these things and not controlling them.  With the word thought or thought process, it is as though the thinker is fully at the mercy of these things.  It is as though we are passive observers of these “thoughts” or “thought processes”.  With the term “mental action” your role as the person in control of the mental action is implied as you are the one doing the action.

The above idea is important, as a key step in changing something is taking responsibility for it.  If you believe you are not responsible for something or are not “at fault”, then you can’t change it.

As part of improving your speech and reducing/eliminating stuttering, you are going to have to take responsibility for and change your mental actions.  Changing your mental actions can significantly contribute to improved speech.

Before continuing, I want to more fully define the term mental action.  A mental action can be thinking a thought.  It can be shifting your attention from one thing to another.  A mental action can be monitoring your speaking.  It can be observing yourself through the eyes of another person.  It can be thinking about what another person is thinking.  A mental action can be daydreaming about going to the beach.  It can be worrying about something in the future.  I could go on and on.  A mental action can be anything you do mentally.

Interestingly, with physical behavior, the general consensus among people is we are fully responsible for it.  When we do something with our body physically, it is “choice” according to most people.  However, many of the mental actions I listed above seem to be thought of as outside the realm of choice by most people.  A lot of the “mental actions” I listed are thought of as things we experience passively and not “behaviors” that are willfully executed.  However, I am finding that mental actions are very much like physical behaviors in this way (they can be willfully executed).

To demonstrate the willful nature of mental actions, perform a couple mental actions right now.  As you read this, willfully view yourself through the eyes of the first person that comes to your mind.  Put yourself in their shoes and observe yourself.  Take a second to do this.  Ok, do you see that this mental activity was performed by you willfully?  I hope so.  You voluntarily performed the mental action of viewing yourself through the eyes of another.  This wasn’t some mental event that “happened to you”.  To drive this point home, perform one more mental action.  Imagine yourself sitting on a beach.  Did you do it?  Do you see how you willfully initiated this mental action?

The point is, you have control over your mental action.

To accommodate full truth, does some thinking/thought happen without us exerting our will to make it happen?  Sure.  I am far from oblivious to this.  For example, if somebody says “Don’t picture a green dog.”, it is very difficult to not picture a green dog.  So, yes, I am aware that some “thinking” and some “thought processes” happen without our explicit use of will.  I also think this is true of physical behaviors.  Despite this, I strongly encourage you to take full responsibility for most, if not all of your mental action.  It is much better to have an attitude of responsibility that encompasses more than you actually control than it is to have an attitude of responsibility that encompasses less than what you actually control.  I won’t get into further debate on this subject, but I believe an attitude of responsibility increases your control over things.  Bottom line, I advise you to take responsibility for your mental action and to believe that you control your mental action.

Becoming the operator/controller of mental action is powerful.  Its reach can affect your life beyond dysfluency.  However, I am only going to focus on controlling mental action to benefit speech flow and decrease blocks/stutters.

While mental action may fall short of being the complete cause of a block, certain mental actions are such influential factors in creating blocks/stutters that they approach being causal.

Let me get into an example.  One thing most people who stutter struggle with (including myself) is being observed when speaking.  Of course, every time we interact with another person we are being observed and this can hinder speech flow.  Our speech gets even worse when we are speaking with someone and there is another person observing/listening to our conversation (so a 1-on-1 interaction and a third person observing/listening).

To summarize, we speak best when we are alone.  We likely speak worse when we are in a 1-on-1 interaction.  We likely speak the worst when we are in a 1-on-1 interaction and are also being observed by a third person.  Why?

The reason is the different mental actions we perform in the above three different scenarios.

Let’s look at the “worst” scenario; a 1-on-1 interaction while being observed by a third person.

Let’s say you are in a room with a two-way mirror.  You have been told that your work supervisor is on the other side of the two way mirror.  You’re in sales and for the next couple hours, clients will be coming into the room you are in and you will be attempting to sell them a product.

In the above scenario, most people who stutter will be performing certain mental actions.  One mental action that will occupy a very significant amount of their mental workspace will be the mental action of viewing themselves through the eyes of their supervisor who is on the other side of the two-way mirror.  They will also be evaluating and judging themselves through the eyes of their supervisor.

Another mental action they will be performing will be the viewing of themselves through the eyes of each client they are trying to sell product to.  They will also be evaluating and judging themselves through the eyes of the client.

All of these things are mental actions (actions the person who stutters is performing).

Now, doing these mental actions above as intensely as most people who stutter do will significantly contribute to increased stuttering and decreased speech flow.  A significant reason the person who stutters speaks better when alone is they are not performing these mental actions (observing and judging themselves through another person’s eyes) while speaking.

So, a very significantly contributing factor to the increased stuttering of a person who stutters is the performance of the mental action of intensely and critically evaluating themselves and their speech through the eyes of another.  If you were to stop performing this action during interaction or at least limit its intensity, your speech flow would benefit.  As a matter of fact, this is one of the largest reasons the person who stutters speaks better when they are alone.  As they are speaking when they are alone, they are not projecting themselves outside of themselves and evaluating their speech critically through the eyes of a listener.  They are not performing this mental action.  This is why they speak better.  Of course, one can conclude that to decrease stuttering and increase speech flow, the person who stutters should limit or eliminate this mental action (observing and evaluating themselves so intensely through the eyes of the listener).

The interesting and misperceived part of this is most people believe that the presence of these individuals (the supervisor and the client in the example) causes the person who stutters to block more.  The belief is that the very presence of these people causes the person who stutters to go through these “mental processes” of intensely viewing themselves through the eyes of these individuals (the supervisor and the client).

However, this is not the case.  The person who stutters is the one performing these mental actions of intensely viewing themselves through the eyes of their listeners.  The person who stutters is the one controlling this process.  The outside observers (the supervisor and the client) have nothing to do with it.

Photo Credit: Hernan Piñera via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Hernan Piñera via Compfight cc

I chose this “two-way mirror” example to highlight the fact that the presence of these individuals has nothing to do with whether or not the person who stutters performs these mental actions (viewing themselves through the eyes of the supervisor and client).  It is only the person who is performing these mental actions (in this scenario, this is the person who stutters) that is controlling the performance of these mental actions; nobody else.  The people in their presence have zero control over it.

To continue and clarify, let’s say that after two hours of sales in front of the two-way mirror the person who stutters takes a break and is then informed that their supervisor did not have time to observe them from the other side of the two-way mirror.  Despite them not being present (the supervisor), the person who stutters still performed the mental action of intensely viewing themselves from the perspective of their supervisor.  They performed this mental action of viewing themselves intensely through the eyes of their supervisor for two hours despite their supervisor not even being there.  In other words, the actual presence of their supervisor did not contribute to their performing of this mental action.  They did it completely on their own, independent of whether or not the supervisor was actually present.  It was a mental action that was fully and exclusively performed by the person who stutters.

The point here is, the person who stutters performed the mental action.  It does not matter what the environment is or who is nearby.  YOU control the mental actions you perform; not anybody in your presence.  The outside observer has no control over the inside of your mind.  You operate your mind.  Do not let the environment dictate how your mind gets operated.  Do not let the presence of another individual dramatically influence the mental actions you perform.  You are at the control center of your mind; not them.  The mental actions you perform are your own behaviors.  They are not dictated by the outside environment.

Obviously, in making this valuable to increasing speech flow, you have to take control of this mental action and stop doing it or limit it as much as you can.  Since performing the mental action of observing yourself intensely through the eyes of another increases stuttering significantly, you should stop/limit your performing of this mental action.

So how does one go about stopping the performance of mental actions and/or changing mental actions?

I would compare the changing of mental actions to the changing of something like posture.  Our posture is something that is relatively ingrained in us.  Let’s say we have very poor posture and it is causing some joint problems so we want to change it.  In order to change it, we are going to have to gain some awareness of it.  Then we are going to have to consciously alter the positions we allow our bodies to go into.  Of course, our posture is something we have become used to.  We are going to have to consciously exert ourselves to alter it.  We are going to have to lend some awareness to identifying when our posture is poor.  When we identify that our posture is poor, we simply change it by moving our bodies into a different posture.  As we continuously catch ourselves in a bad posture and change our body’s position to the desired posture, over time we will begin putting our bodies into the desired posture more without conscious effort.  This is also true with habitual mental action.

In getting more specific on changing mental action, you are going to have to begin identifying what mental actions you are performing when you are stuttering.  I will list some examples later.  After identifying them, you are going to have to replace these mental actions which significantly hinder your speech flow, with mental actions that cultivate and propel your speech flow.

Is it relatively difficult to do in the heat of the moment?  Yes.  When you first go into a speaking situation and observe your mental action and try to change it, will it happen easily?  Probably not.  It will likely take consistent work and application over time to alter habitual mental action.

In the example I used above in which the person who stutters is performing the mental action of viewing/listening to themselves intensely through the eyes of their listeners, what can be done?

Firstly, as I explained, the person who stutters is the one performing the above mental action.  They should exert their will to stop the performance of this mental action.  Now, like I said with the “green dog example”, I understand you are not 100% in control of all mental action.  You may think you cannot stop the performance of this mental action.  However, in my practical experience often you can stop doing it.  However, even if you can’t stop doing it completely you can certainly limit the intensity with which you are doing it.  Both of these changes (stopping the mental action or reducing its intensity) will improve speech flow.

So, the first thing you should do is exert your will to stop performing the mental action or significantly decrease its intensity.  That’s part one.

Part two of what should be done is you should replace the mental action you do not want (one that is hindering speech flow) with a mental action that cultivates and propels speech flow.

In other words, in the example I’ve been using, the person who stutters should replace the mental action of “observing and judging themselves through the eyes of their listener” with a different mental action.  In this case, you might want to start performing the mental action of “viewing yourself (as you speak) through the lens of an all knowing and all understanding being.”  This is just one idea.  Another would be “viewing yourself (as you speak) through the lens of a child.”  If either of these increase your speech flow and limit blocks then they would be good candidates for replacing the block inducing mental action.  Come up with some of your own ideas if necessary.

SIDENOTE:  Ideally, the person who stutters would perform the same mental actions as a fluent speaker (in other words, not thinking “am I going to stutter here” etc. etc.).  However, for the person who stutters who is still working on building more speech flow, I do not believe this is possible yet (to perform all of the normal mental actions of a fluent speaker every time they speak).  So, for now, I would advise replacing block-cultivating mental actions with any mental action that cultivates and propels speech flow.

Also, ideally, one should not be performing numerous mental actions while speaking.  The act of speaking requires some of its own mental action.  It is not ideal to flood the mental workspace with several mental actions that are not required for speech. However, in altering the habitual mental actions of most people who stutter, it is necessary to implement some extra mental actions that are not necessary for speech in order to rid the person who stutters of block-cultivating mental actions.

One more point on this; the reason I recommend replacing a block-cultivating mental action with a speech-flow-cultivating mental action is because we have a limited amount of mental workspace.  In other words, we can only perform so much mental action at a given moment.  In summary, our mental workspace is limited.  If you can fill your mental workspace with speech-flow-cultivating mental actions, then there is no room for block-cultivating mental actions to find their way into your mental workspace.  It is more difficult to just stop doing a mental action without replacing it because our minds have the tendency to want to fill the mental workspace with something.  Therefore replacing block-cultivating mental actions with speech-flow-cultivating mental actions will eliminate any mental workspace for the block-cultivating mental action to re-emerge.

In adding to this, I would advise filling the mental workspace as often as you can with speech-flow-cultivating mental actions.  Like changing posture, the more you do them, the more they come naturally.  Also, like I said, when you fill the mental workspace with speech-flow-cultivating mental actions, there is no room for block-cultivating mental actions.

In moving forward. I am going to list some of the mental actions that strongly encourage blocks.

  1. Intensely monitoring your speech for stuttering and blocks.
  2. Thinking about speech and/or stuttering; how complicated it is; how it won’t flow for you; how you might block; thinking about the vocal folds or the articulators; etc.
  3. Thinking about how important it is that you speak well
  4. Trying not to stutter
  5. Scanning ahead and anticipating a block
  6. Intensely worrying about the impression you make
  7. Moving your attention all over the place when speaking (to the listener’s reaction, to the person across the hall who might hear you, to a noise in the background, to a thought in your head)
  8. Going into 3rd person when you are speaking; hearing yourself in 3rd person and judging it
  9. Thinking negative thoughts; about speech or otherwise.

To counter the above block-cultivating mental actions, I will list an idea for a speech-flow-cultivating mental action that you might use to replace it (corresponding numerically).  I am just listing suggestions.  You can come up with others.  Keep in mind the first thing you want to do is exert your will as best you can to stop doing the block-cultivating mental action.  Replacing it with a speech-flow-cultivating mental action is just another helpful strategy.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Monitor your speech for flow. In other words, observe your speech for when words are coming out.  Instead of only noticing the blocks in your speech, notice the flow.
  2. Think about how easy speech can be. Think about a time when your words just flowed and it felt effortless.  Think about how effortless walking is.  Think about how effortless many physical actions are.  This is how speech should be.
  3. Think about how you want to communicate your point. Frame the situation so that your goal is to get your point across and communicate what you need to communicate; not to “speak well”.
  4. Stutter on purpose (I only recommend this if a person is going to do a lot of this. You can’t just do it once or twice here and there in my opinion.).
  5. Experience the flowing nature of time and do not get caught fixating on a moment.
  6. Focus on who you know you really are. It’s not about the impression you make.  It’s about who you actually are.
  7. Keep your attention focused on what is in front of you and on what you can control. Don’t allow it to scatter.
  8. Stay in first person.
  9. Think positive thoughts.
Photo Credit: Jersey JJ via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Jersey JJ via Compfight cc

In closing, changing mental action is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal when working to improve your speech.  Like I said, it will likely not be the easiest thing to change.  However, in my experience, a lot of what is required for the improvement of speech-flow requires consistent application over time.  While you may experience quick results, do not be overly discouraged on your journey to improved fluency if you do not notice immediate and significant impact on your dysfluency.  Consistent work on your speech with methods that makes sense (I say this because there is a lot of stuttering treatment that makes no sense) will very likely improve your fluency over time.  The application of sensible methodology will mold you (sometimes slowly) into a person with better speaking abilities.  Consistent pressure over time is a very powerful thing.  The Grand Canyon is solid rock that was carved by the continuous subtle pressure of flowing water.  Keep this in mind on your journey.

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2 thoughts on “Mental Action: What Is It & How Can It Be Harnessed?

  1. Hi Matthew,
    You are so on the money with this post, it is all about using the mind to rewire the brain.
    Please check out the book “You are not your brain” by Jeffrey M Schwartz a Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He has spent 25 years researching and coming up with a solution for OCD.
    While I am certain the experts will say there is no relationship with stuttering, we do compulsively do it and obsessively try not to do it! This book is about using his work to correct bad habits and how the mind is in control of the brain.
    I totally agree that trying to change the stuttering habit during conversation is a big ask and is basically just adding another interference to the speech process. I have a personal story of achieving improved fluency using visualization with a link to one of Professor Schwarts’s public lectures. Please visit at http://www.stutterfreesteve.weebly.com
    I wish you well in the pursuit of this stuttering riddle.
    Kind Regards
    Stephen Clarkson

    Like

    1. Hi Stephen,

      I’m glad you could relate and are behind this post’s content.

      I will check out the book you listed. I have certainly read a decent amount of stuff on “rewiring” the brain and I think it’s malleability is cause for optimism. There are a lot of disciplines that were not designed for the treatment of dysfluency, however, can certainly be used for it.

      Congrats on your successful journey to free yourself from stuttering. I think it is very possible for most people who stutter. Changing the perception that it is completely chronic and unchangeable is one of the challenges facing its treatment right now in my opinion. The more success stories the better. I’ll look more into your journey and methods as I am always looking to learn more.

      All the best
      Matt

      Like

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