Written by Matthew O’Malley
As stuttering and speech-blocking are observable behaviors in which the person is having difficulty speaking, it only makes sense that the attention towards understanding this condition has been focused on the speech mechanism. It also makes logical sense that treatments have been focused there as well.
It has largely been assumed (understandably so) that stuttering is a problem with speaking. It is assumed there is something amiss with the speech mechanism itself or with the neurological “wiring” associated with speaking. This is what is behind stuttering, or so the traditional thinking goes.
However, what if you were to learn that there are conditions and behaviors that involve no speaking that are strikingly similar to stuttering?
What if you learned there were golfers who could fluidly make practice swings, yet when they stepped up to actually hit the ball, they could only get half way through their golf swing and would then freeze or jerk? Doesn’t this sound a lot like people who stutter speaking more fluently when alone?
What if you learned baseball pitchers can become unable to throw a strike under pressure? What if during their pitching motion, something went awry and they were unable to control it? What if you learned their mechanics froze or became erratic and pitches were thrown wildly?
What if you learned that some dart players have a condition called dartitis that is eerily similar to stuttering? What if some dart players were unable to properly execute their dart-tossing motion and muscles froze and acted erratically disrupting their accuracy and ability to even compete?
What if these same things happened to cricket players? What if they also happened to pool players? What if it happened with football kickers? What if they happened to musicians? What if you learned these same things happen to basketball players shooting free throws, snooker players hitting the cue, and bowlers attempting to release the ball?
What if all of these things were true? Well, they are.
In many of the above sports/activities, this condition is casually referred to as “the yips”. Wikipedia states (2017):
“Yips or the yips is the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs suddenly and without apparent explanation usually in mature athletes with years of experience. It is poorly understood and has no known treatment or therapy. Athletes affected by the yips sometimes recover their ability, which may require a change in technique. Many are forced to abandon their sport at the highest level.”
“The yips manifest themselves as twitches, staggers, jitters and jerks. The condition occurs most often in sports which athletes are required to perform a single precise and well-timed action such as golf and darts. The condition is also experienced by bowlers in cricket and pitchers in baseball.”
More on this comes from an article on MLB.com titled, “The Yips: Difficult to understand, difficult to cure“. It further illuminates the many similarities the yips has to stuttering for both those experiencing the yips and for those observing them. Meisel states (2013):
“Inside Major League clubhouses, it’s a taboo subject, confined to the office of a team psychologist or to the walls encompassing a player’s brain. Experts take extra precaution with how they define it, fearful of classifying a player as having some deficiency or being a liability. To those observing, it seems like a predicament with a simple solution. To those enduring, there are no answers, only a proliferating number of questions. Much has been written about “the Yips,” but much about the condition remains clouded. “We really don’t talk about it as baseball players,” said 19-year veteran Jason Giambi. “It’s just this unwritten rule. You feel terrible for [those experiencing it].” The Yips is no mythological plague. For reasons unknown, players can encounter a mental hurdle that flat-out won’t permit them to complete one of the game’s mundane on-field tasks. Infielders suddenly can’t find the first baseman’s glove on routine throws. Catchers can’t execute the simple task of returning the ball to the pitcher.”
In darts, the condition is called Dartitis. Wikipedia states (2017):
“Dartitis (pronounced dart-eye-tis) is a condition which can affect darts players, and severely damage their performance. It can be compared to ‘the yips’, an expression used to describe apparent loss of fine motor skills without any explanation. The term is used in reference to players who struggle with some kind of psychological problem with their technique and/or release of their darts.”
Reading about these conditions which are similar to stuttering is one thing, but seeing is believing. Often times “seeing” is more convincing. For that reason, I have compiled a few videos of individuals who experience “the yips”.
The first one is of Charles Barkley. As many likely know, he is a former NBA star. He is also a person who golfs as a hobby and developed a significant case of the yips in his golf swing. The video below shows his frozen and jerky golf swing. In the first clip of the video, it shows him experiencing the freezing and jerkiness of the yips when he hits the ball in a live shot. In the same frame it shows he can swing fluidly in a practice swing. Here it is:
The following video is both an interview and footage of a professional darts player who has acquired dartitis/”the yips”. He describes the freezing of his motion which is followed by footage comparing his timing before acquiring dartitis and after. Here is the video:
The next two videos are of a professional baseball player who ended up acquiring the yips. The first video is him describing what he goes through when it happens. The description of what he goes through personally is nearly identical to a person who begins stuttering in front of others. The second video shows his erratic throwing as a result of losing control of his throwing motion without any explanation. Here are the videos:
A Case Study on Penmanship
There is also a case study of “Penmanship Stuttering” here. According to Scripture (1909), an adult became a bank teller and was consistently criticized for poor handwriting. He began focusing excessively on it and taking classes to improve it. It eventually turned into a form of “penmanship stuttering” involving “nervous fear…the moment he took up a pen. Before beginning to write he would make a number of nervous strokes with the pen without touching the paper.” Dysgraphia may also be of interest.
So far, we have seen that there are behaviors and conditions similar to stuttering that affect parts of the body that do not involve speaking. Let’s take a look at exactly what some of these similarities are. In finding common denominators among all of the cases including the yips, stuttering, dartitis etc., we can begin to get a better understanding of these conditions’ true underlying nature.
It is now important to quickly note that speech is movement. To speak out loud a person must move parts of their body. They must move the lips, tongue, jaw, chest muscles, vocal folds etc. in order to speak. To speak out loud one must perform a motor act.
In getting back to it, let’s look at the similarities between stuttering and the above mentioned conditions. What are they?
- All of the observed conditions involve movement of the body. They are motor acts. The individual who experiences these conditions (whether it be stuttering, the yips, dartitis, etc.) wants to perform a certain movement with their body. In baseball pitching it’s largely a precise movement of the arm, shoulder and hand. In speaking, it is a precise movement of the lips, tongue, etc.
- The person wanting to perform these movements experiences a loss of control of the movement. This can be a freezing, blocking, jerkiness, or just a loss of control.
- The person who wants to perform the movement and experiences this loss of control is at a total loss as to what happens. They have no idea why they lost control.
- The blocking/freezing/jerking usually occurs only under pressure. The person afflicted can usually perform the desired movement when not under pressure. In other words, when they practice the movement they can do it. When they perform the movement alone, they can usually do it. However, when it matters most that the movement is performed correctly, they encounter the blocking/freezing/jerking/loss-of-control.
- It is extremely difficult to fix or treat.
- It’s not well understood.
- It affects learned skills involving fine motor movement.
- There is usually an element of anticipatory anxiety which can become severe surrounding an attempt at the desired behavior/movement.
The above listed are important similarities. The next one I am going to focus on is harder to see but I believe is important in the condition.
9. Immediately after the movement is performed, powerful positive or negative feedback is received. The movement is very tied to the human reward system. After the movement is performed “when it matters” the individual performing the movement gets powerful feedback that makes them feel good or bad. So, there is a temporal element in that the movement is tied to reward or punishment immediately after it is performed.
- To further explain in an example, when a baseball pitcher performs the movements to throw a pitch in front of a crowd and it is a strike, the crowd may roar with approval. His teammates are proud of him. He feels very good. He is rewarded. On the other hand, if he performs the movements to throw a pitch and the batter hits a home run off of him, the fans of his team are disappointed. He knows he has hurt his team’s chances of winning. He feels negatively. He is “punished” by the reward system. All of this happens within split seconds. The baseball pitcher performs the pitching motion and within a fraction of a second knows if it is a strike, a ball, or if the batter has made solid contact. These different outcomes are virtually instantly attached to different feedbacks from the reward system; punishing ones that make the person feel bad or rewarding ones that make the person feel good.
- The same is true of speaking. When an individual speaks with another person or a group, they perform movements of the speaking apparatus. Immediately after speaking (making movements) they acquire feedback from their listener. This feedback can be positive or negative. The person can accept them and approve of them based on what they say and how they say it. Or, they can disapprove and dislike them. These feedbacks are powerful and the speaker feels good or bad based on them often times. And again, this feedback is virtually instant. The second we say something to another person we receive their feedback (facial expressions, a response). We perform the speech movements and we receive positive or negative feedback immediately and either feel good or bad.
- You could write analogous examples for all of the other activities listed above (darts, cricket, musical performance).
Where is the Common Origin?
In looking at the common denominators/similarities between stuttering and these other stutter-like behaviors (the yips, dartitis) it becomes fairly clear that neither the physical apparatus nor its neurological “wiring’ are the root of the problem. In baseball pitching, the freezing/jerking/loss-of-control happens in the arm and hand. In speaking, freezing/jerking/loss-of-control happens in the speaking apparatus. With football kickers, the freezing/jerking/loss-of-control happens in the leg, ankle, and foot. So, as we can see, the common denominator is not the part of the body. This points strongly towards the fact that what is causing this freezing/jerking/loss-of-control does not reside in the part of the body affected.
Well if the problem is not in the physical apparatus affected, where could it be?
Well, what underlies each of these behaviors is the human motor system in general. What we are observing in these stutter-like behaviors or “yips” is a phenomenon of the motor system; not of any specific behavior nor physical body part. Stutter-like behaviors can manifest in any part of the physical body where fine motor learned skills are possible. It just so happens as speech is a skill learned by everyone, that stuttering is by far the most common manifestation of this phenomenon of the motor system.
The required conditions for developing stutter-like behaviors are, for one; it is a learned movement skill. Two; there is pressure on the individual performing the movement skill to do it right and well. Three; upon attempting or completing the movement skill, there will be feedback, either positive or negative, instantly. This feedback provides a reward or punishment for the person who performed the movement skill. Four; because the performance of the movements can bring about punishment or reward, there is often focus on performing it well, as the person desires achieving the “reward” and not the “punishment”. Five; the uncertainty of the outcome (reward or punishment) for performing the movement often creates an anticipatory anxiety.
The Motor System
After making the case that stuttering, dartitis, the yips and other involuntary freezing/blocking/jerking-movements are of the same origin, let’s take a look at what I have identified to be the underlying mechanism behind them all; the human motor system.
When people learn that many people who stutter can speak very fluently in some situations they are mystified. When they learn that a physical behavior (speaking, throwing a pitch) can be dramatically affected by the environment these behaviors are performed in, they are taken aback. This is because the traditional belief is that movement is a voluntary action and can be controlled by the person in the body regardless of their surroundings. The belief is that if a person can throw a dart in a room with nobody in it without a hitch, then, of course they can make that same dart-throwing-motion when there are people in the room. The traditional thinking is that the performance of a movement is independent of these factors. However, stuttering and the yips are a window into the underlying nature of the human motor system and what they reveal teach us something that begs to differ with traditional thinking.
Side note: When we observe any reality and are mystified by it or are in awe of it, it is because our belief system about the nature of reality is inaccurate. When we experience awe or experience being mystified, we can then do a self-examination as to what beliefs in our own belief system are not correct.
The reality is that movement and the human motor system are affected by many factors. The one factor I am going to focus most on now is the role of fear in movement. A more socially acceptable term for human fear is “anxiety” but really they are the same. Fear/anxiety is largely animal and is evolutionarily based. At its root is usually a fear of death, of not procreating, of being ostracized/abandoned, or of losing attachments (all of these are based in survival). To learn more about fear, stuttering, and the social animal, click here.
In continuing, fear and movement are deeply intertwined and related. When an individual enters into a state of fear, it is a state where energy resources for movement are in abundance. A fear state is designed to impact movement of the body to better enable it to fight a predator or flee or other things. The fight/flight/freeze response is a fear response rooted in survival whose purpose is largely to impact the body’s ability to move (to fight with maximum force, to flee with maximum speed, or to freeze perfectly in place). This fear state affects the movement and motor system of the body dramatically.
That is just one example of the intertwined relationship between fear and the motor system.
Fairly new research reveals how significant of a role fear can play in affecting movement and motor activity. Let’s take a look.
Sagaspe, Schwartz & Vuilleumir, in “Fear and stop: A role for the amygdala in motor inhibition by emotional signals” state (2011):
“Our findings suggest that the amygdala may not only promote protective motor reactions in emotionally-significant contexts (such as freezing or defensive behavior) but also influence the execution of ongoing actions by modulating brain circuits involved in motor control, so as to afford quick and adaptive changes in current behavior.”
Let’s translate. The amygdala is largely associated with fear responses. It is also associated with emotional learning in registering reward and punishment. The study quoted above brought on fear responses in their participants by showing them fearful faces while they were performing motor activities (movements). This was to record what effect fear and the amygdala had on motor execution and the motor system. The results were significant demonstrating the effects the fear inducing images had on motor movements. So, when fear and the amygdala were activated it not only promoted certain actions/movements but it virtually controlled the very execution of the actions (movements). It did this through the amygdala (fear center) affecting brain circuits directly responsible for motor control. In other words, their findings suggest that the amygdala (responsible for fear, largely) can make movements itself by modulating the motor system. This demonstrates a direct role where fear can control movement.
Let’s look at another academic publication. Sprague & Epstein state (1979):
“One of the recent major themes in neuroscience is the recognition that the limbic and motor systems of the brain are associated anatomically and functionally. In retrospect, this seems to have been an inevitable development, arising in large measure from the classical experiments of Hess (1954) who observed that chronic electrical stimulation of the medial forebrain bundle (a complex neural pathway interconnecting limbic structures, hypothalamus, and brain stem) elicited attack, escape, feeding and other behavioral responses in cats that were very intense and produced very reliably. This experiment suggested that the limbic-hypothalamic integrated activities associated with such biologically significant behaviors, must gain access to the motor system so as to initiate behavioral acts.”
Again, let’s translate. The limbic system is largely thought of as the emotional system. It includes the thalamus and hypothalamus which are also specifically named. When the article discusses how the limbic system and the motor system are both anatomically and functionally related, it is talking about how emotions and movement are interlinked functionally. It states that experiments have been done stimulating only limbic structures (not stimulating motor structures) and this has reliably produced movement behaviors in cats such as attack, escape, and feeding movements. It goes as far as to state that limbic activity must gain access to the motor system and initiate behavioral acts (movements). In essence, stimulation of the limbic system (emotions) elicited motor behaviors (movements). This again is evidence that movement and the motor system are significantly affected and even controlled by systems outside of the motor system. In this case it is the limbic system.
Throughout this post, a case has been made that stuttering’s nature is not rooted in speech nor the speech mechanism at all. However, its origins are rooted in the motor system in general. This is based on the notion that there are many other “conditions” that are nearly identical to stuttering that affect various different parts of the body (arms, legs, etc.).
In further examining the nature of the motor system there is strong evidence that elements like fear and other emotions can be significant influences on motor performance. Better yet these elements can at times, directly control motor performance (movements) or inhibit it.
Based on my experience with stuttering as well as the above information and other information on stuttering, I believe there are many factors that affect motor movements and stuttering/blocking specifically. There are numerous elements that can contribute to a block. As was demonstrated in the above post, fear (amygdala) and emotions (limbic system) can impact the motor system. However, there are likely more factors.
Experiencing a speech block or a stutter is something the person who stutters feels detached from. It feels as though they are not in control. It feels as if they are not the ones bringing on the block. It feels as though an element outside of their control is causing their speech block/stutter.
In explaining this, I believe there is a subconscious formula that determines when an individual blocks and when an individual does not block.
As has been shown, there are elements outside of the motor system that affect its functioning. The two we have discussed are fear and emotion. As stated, there are likely more.
In making this information practical and to give the person who stutters some level of control, we need to begin to affect some of these outside factors that contribute to blocks. We need to impact the elements of the subconscious formula.
I am going to list a few of the factors I believe affect whether a block/stutter occurs or not. I believe that based on the combination of these factors and more, the subconscious will determine whether it should block speech flow or enable it. Here are a few factors:
- Level of fear/anxiety
- What the attention is focused on
- How mandatory one believes it is that they speak well and do not stutter
- How aroused/excited/anxious one’s body is
- What the underlying beliefs about stuttering are
As stated, in making this practical, what one would do to begin improving fluency is working to mold each one of the elements towards fluency. Molding each one of the elements towards fluency will make it more likely that the subconscious formula for blocking will determine it should allow speech flow instead of block it. Here are some examples on how one might go about molding the factors above which correspond to their numbers. Some of the below strategies would need to be practiced consistently over time to have a measurable effect on fluency.
- The less fear the better. There are numerous strategies to lower fear. Daily meditation is a good way to start. Relaxation techniques are also helpful. You can re-frame how you see interaction. Instead of “oh my gosh I’m going to stutter and this is going to be a disaster”, you can start inserting thoughts like, “well, let’s go for it! I’m going to talk to this person. Big deal if my lips don’t move immediately. I can’t believe I stress over that.” Those are a few ways off the top of my head to begin moving the needle.
- You want your attention focused on stuttering as little as possible. The mind often creates what it thinks about. It’s actually best if the attention is not focused on the mechanics of speaking at all. It is also very good to focus on all positive things. Focus on the message you are trying to deliver. Focus on how easy speech is. Focus on a good memory. Focusing on positive things will increase the odds of fluency.
- The less you believe it is utterly mandatory that you speak perfectly, the better. Think thoughts like, “mistakes are beautiful”, “who cares if I stumble”, “I’ve stuttered before and I’m still here standing”, or “the world actually will go on if I stutter some”.
- Calming the physical body is also good. The more relaxed the body is all around, the better. This doesn’t mean you have to be a zombie who never gets excited. It’s a general rule. Check in with the body. Release tensions in it when you check in. Take deep breaths (I know many PWS hate to hear that but it can have an effect over time). Do progressive muscle relaxations. Keep the body tension free. There is something called the vagus nerve that monitors all the systems in the body and reports it back to the brain. This information is likely used in the “stuttering or not subconscious formula”.
- The more positive your beliefs are about speech and stuttering, the better. It’s better to believe you will be able to make improvements on your speech than to think you are forever at the mercy of stuttering. It’s better to believe you are a good communicator than to think you aren’t. It’s better to believe you will connect with people than to think stuttering will be an obstacle. The more positive the beliefs the better. I’ll also say that the mind is good at believing lies. Even if you are not an excellent communicator it is good to believe you are, and consistent thoughts have a way of becoming realities.
There are more factors that likely contribute to the subconscious formula that determines whether one will have a speech block or will have fluency. Working on the above elements and more over time consistently will likely yield results in fluency improvement as well as in the reduction of anxiety. Based on this the stuttering cycle can begin snowballing backwards.
Another disorder that has some implications for the topics we are discussing is conversion disorder. In conversion disorder, normally functioning individuals suddenly take on significant motor impairments. It is believed and backed up by some research that the limbic system (emotions) begins affecting the motor system resulting in significant symptoms. Here is a video which discusses conversion disorder:
Meisel, Z. (2013, May 10). The Yips: Difficult to understand, difficult to cure. Retrieved September 08, 2017, from http://m.mlb.com/news/article/47124896/the-yips-difficult-to-understand-difficult-to-cure/
Sagaspe, P., Schwartz, S., & Vuilleumier, P. (2011). Fear and stop: A role for the amygdala in motor inhibition by emotional signals. NeuroImage,55(4), 1825-1835. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.01.027
Scripture, E. W. “Penmanship Stuttering.” Journal of the American Medical Association, LII, no. 19, Aug. 1909, p. 1480., doi:10.1001/jama.1909.25420450012001d.
Sprague, J. S., & Epstein, A. N. (1979). Progress in psychobiology and physiological psychology. New York: Academic Press.
Yips. (2017, July 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved
22:43, September 8, 2017