“I am not giving myself to the cause of stuttering. I am giving it to people; to the people who feel their true selves are trapped inside their bodies due to it.”
Written by Matthew O’Malley
Traduction Française (translation by Richard Parent)
A human being is geared to survive in the physical world. It is geared, like all other living beings, to survive through time. It has evolved to do so. Surviving inherently implies time. One survives across a lifespan; a continuum; not a moment nor an instant. As such, the nature of the human organism at deep levels is time oriented. Much of this time orientation is designed specifically for predicting the future. This is true, as in order to survive one must act in the present to survive the demands of the future.
No action nor movement is designed for “the now”. They are based on a future projection and they are based in meeting the future as is determined necessary by the mind’s future simulations.
A prey animal does not begin running from a predator it hears in the brush because it is currently being pounced on. It runs because it projects a future that if it doesn’t run it will be pounced on. So, the action/movement (running) is based and motivated by a projected simulation of the future in the mind (conscious and unconscious) of the prey animal. These future projections are utterly necessary to survival.
This is true of actions/movements big and small. It is not only true in scenarios that are imminently life or death. It is true of seemingly mundane actions/movements. For example, I have a glass of water next to me and I’m thirsty. To quench my thirst and ensure my future survival, I make movements with my hand, arm, and mouth to bring the glass of water to my mouth. The motivation for every movement is in the future. I moved my hand based on a future projection of “if I do so, I will get water and quench my thirst (and survive when you boil it down)”. Without these future projections, one has no motive to move.
Simulations of the future are utterly fundamental to movement.
Sidenote: Stuttering has not been addressed directly to this point. However, the information being presented is building to be applied to it. Peer-reviewed sources will also be consulted on the subjects I am discussing.
A Role for Consciousness and the Conscious Mind
The conscious mind dangles future rewards in the mind’s eye to inspire action. It also dangles punishing futures which are meant to bring about plans/actions to avoid them. The role of the mind is simulation. In every scenario it simulates possible outcomes and prepares us and informs us based on these simulations.
If I am hungry, I likely am thinking (simulating a future) about a food I am craving. I am picturing it. I am imagining the sensation of eating it. I can smell it “in my mind”. These experiences in the mind’s “imagination” bring about movements/actions to acquire the actual experience (eating the craved food). Inherent in the imagining of these experiences is a yearning to experience it in reality. This is what gets a person to work for it.
The mind doesn’t just do this with food. It does it with water. It does it with the mate you want to attract. It does it with the dreams you want to achieve in your life. It does it with the house you want. It does it with the car you want. It dangles these things in your mind and you are inspired to act to get them. This is at least part of consciousness’s purpose; to dangle rewards and get you to pursue them.
On the flip side, the mind dangles punishing outcomes in order to deter them from happening. You may imagine/simulate a car accident in the future if you go too fast. This brings about safe driving. You may imagine/simulate getting attacked if you go running on an unpopulated trail. This may bring about a “decision” to go running in a different area.
Our minds’ simulations are designed to inspire and deter actions that are in line with our survival through time. This form of simulated time travel is very advantageous. It allows us to “test” things without physically doing them.
Our simulations of the future can be very real. We can feel them even as we simulate. If I imagine achieving a lifelong dream, I can feel the excitement. If I imagine eating a delicious meal when I am starving I can almost taste how good it is. Or if I imagine someone taking a hammer to my kneecaps, I cringe because I am partly experiencing it (You likely cringed while readng that yourself.).
There is a large part of us that is actually in this simulated future. We feel it. We experience it. We are there. Our consciousness is regularly time traveling. Part of us is in the future. Part of us is in the past.
Beginning to apply this to stuttering
If you read my pieces regularly, you’ve heard what I’m about to say before. However it’s an important concept that I must touch on again for new readers. Speech is movement. When a person speaks out loud, they move their lips, tongue, jaw, vocal folds, thoracic muscles, etc. It is important to remember as I talk about speech and stuttering that speech is movement.
As has been discussed above, movement is about the future. The basis and motivation for movement (including speech movements) is to meet the demands of the future; to survive through time. Fundamental to movement is a future projection for the purpose of the movement.
Let’s introduce a few credentialed experts on this subject. I was pleased to find some established professionals who shared these views.
The first is Rodolfo Llinás who is a Colombian-born American Neuroscientist. He is the Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Physiology & Neuroscience at the NYU School of Medicine. He is also the author of a forward thinking book on consciousness titled, I of the Vortex.
A second expert on the subject is György Buszáki; a Hungarian born professor of Neuroscience and winner of the “Brain Prize” in 2011 for his work. He’s published on subjects such as neuronal communication, brain waves, and much more. He’s also written a book on consciousness and other subjects titled, Rhythms of the Brain.
In Buszáki’s (2011) book he states “Consciousness, subjectivity, the self, the possessor and organizer of qualia, whatever we want to call it, is directed toward the future even at its most primitive origins in movement.”
He continues (2011),”Can you recognize the sense of future inherent to sensorimotor images, the pulling toward the action to be performed? This is very important, and a very old part of mindness…it was this governing, this leading, this pulling by predictive drive, intention, that brought sensorimotor images —indeed, the mind itself—to us in the first place…I propose that this mindness state, which may or may not represent external reality (the latter as with imagining or dreaming), has evolved as a goal-oriented device that implements predictive/intentional interactions between a living organism and its environment… underlying the workings of perception is prediction, that is, the useful expectation of events yet to come. Prediction, with its goal-oriented essence, so very different from reflex, is the very core of brain function.”
Llinás states (2008), “This self represents ―something akin to ‘I feel‘ that acts to mediate decision making and prediction. They ―represent the critically important space between input and output, for they are neither, yet are a product of one and the drive for the other.”
There was an article published in Reviews in the Neurosciences titled “Time, Consciousness, & Motility”. Its author is Dr. Goodrich from The University of Colorado. He reviews the work of both Llinás and Buszáki in it.
Goodrich states (2010), “For Buzsáki, Llinás, and Merleau-Ponty, it is movement—that is always future oriented—that is at the heart of all neuronal functioning in all species having neurons, and of human (and other vertebrate) consciousness.”
She continues (2010), “Similar to Llinás, Merleau-Ponty writes about movement as future-oriented: ―I am already at the impending present as my gesture is already at its goal, I am myself time.”
So in the performance of a movement, there is part of us that is already existing, in a way, in the future goal the movement attempts to accomplish.
Applying all this to stuttering further
As stated, speech is movement and movement is both goal-oriented and future-oriented. The movements of speech are performed to acquire something as all movements are. Interestingly, there is even a point in development when children become aware of the “means-end” nature of speech. “Means end” refers to how speech can be used to manipulate the environment to one’s needs. Now that may sound “immoral” and “manipulative”, but it’s not necessarily. Sometimes speaking is to enjoy friendship but this is still a goal-oriented, future directed behavior.
So, prior to movement there is a future simulation of what the results of the movement will likely produce. This happens both unconsciously and consciously. Let’s look at what precedes interaction in a person who stutters.
When a person who stutters approaches an interaction, they are simulating futures, like anyone would. However, in a person who stutters, a significant part of these simulations is stuttering. This usually includes the pain, embarrassment, shame, and ostracism of it. In some ways, the people who stutter are in the future already stuttering before they even do it physically. Part of them is in the future. They are stuttering in their minds and experiencing its pain prior to the speaking attempt.
Before continuing, as this is Part II of a series, I would like to briefly recap the key points in Part I.
Part I Recap
The above graphic is based on a compilation of peer-reviewed research which summarizes Part I. You can read the full piece to get more in-depth explanations here if you would like. However, this graphic sums them up without the in-depth explanations. Below are some supplemental explanations of the graph.
Our experience of ‘now’ is on a half second delay. When we experience conscious reality, it actually happened in physical reality a half-second earlier in physical time. This is explained in the half second between the green arrow and the red arrow. So, the physical ‘now’ happened about a half second before we experienced it consciously which is also demonstrated in how there is a half second off-set between the “Conscious Experience of Time” and “Real Physical Time”. (Eagleman, 2018) (Colman & Libet, 2015) When a person who stutters experiences a stutter consciously, it actually happened a half second earlier. When a person who stutters is trying to “get out of” or “fix a” block it already happened a half second earlier.
Movements that we make begin being prepared neurologically before we are consciously aware we are going to make them. After it has been partially prepared we become aware of our “decision” to perform that action/movement. (Libet, 1985) This is demonstrated visually in the .3 seconds between the grey arrow and the blue arrow.
Movement preparation begins 550 ms before movement. (Libet, 1985) This is demonstrated in the space between the grey arrow and the green arrow.
200 ms before movement we “make the decision” to perform the movement. (Libet, 1985) This is demonstrated in the .2 seconds between the blue arrow and the green arrow.
500 ms after an event happens physically, we experience the event consciously. (Eagleman, 2018)
The nervous system activity that begins preparing a movement is called a readiness potential. This is the side note in black. This has been demonstrated to be present in fluent speakers prior to speech movements, however it has been shown to be absent in people who stutter prior to speech. (Deecke, Engel, Lang, & Kornhuber, 1986)(Walla, Mayer, Deecke, & Thurner, 2004)
Continuing with Part II
With Part I and that graphic in mind, let’s move forward.
In continuing with the article we discussed above titled “Time, Consciousness, & Motility”, it begins to support the idea that muscular action (such as a stuttering block or speech) can occur before conscious awareness. It supports the idea that even when muscular action is triggered by an environmental stimulus, the muscular action can be performed even prior to the environmental stimulus that triggered it reaches the conscious mind. More simply, a muscular action based on an environmental input can occur before a person is even consciously aware of the environmental input. Let’s take a look.
In “Time, Consciousness, & Motility”, Goodrich states (2008), “consciousness does have particular limits regarding time and particular time-based capacities. Buzsáki notes that Benjamin Libet‘s fascinating studies of experienced time reveal that ―the somatosensory cortex had to be stimulated for 200-500 milliseconds for evoking a conscious sensation of touch. Quicker events may give us unconscious information, i.e. contribute to our responding, but they will not appear to the conscious mind. For example, when we are driving and a deer jumps out in front of us and we instantly brake to avoid hitting it, our brains process the reaction to brake before we are conscious even of the deer appearing. In retrospect, we construct the internal storyline of seeing the deer and thus braking, but our conscious minds did not actually experience the events in that sequence.”
So breaking it down; sensory input, while received unconsciously, does not always reach the conscious mind, however can influence reactions and “decisions”. The example states that there are scenarios like a deer jumping out in front of a car that we would push the brakes on the car before we were even conscious of the deer itself. This is because the deer’s presence had registered unconsciously and triggered muscular action (braking) before one’s conscious awareness of even the deer. After the event, the mind constructs a memory that makes us feel as though we “decided” to brake.
Breaking Down a Blocking Scenario
Let’s keep in mind that there is a half second between our conscious experience of what’s happening and what’s physically happening. Our conscious experience is lagging by a half second. We are “living in the past” by a half second.
However, the movements (speech is movement) we make are based on future simulations. So there are significant parts of us that are in the past and significant parts of us that are in the future. Our unconscious mind is trying to figure out what action is best based on what it sees coming in the future. Based on its projections, we are fed conscious thoughts and sensations to allow us to deal with it for future survival.
Very Important Sidenote: Ostracism, abandonment, disapproval, rejection, and social disconnection are profoundly punishing experiences to a human being. I have written extensively on this here. However, a very brief summary is that, evolutionarily we are a pack species; we are social animals. As children in the wild we were utterly dependent on our caretakers for survival. As adults, hunting in packs and having the protection and ability to mate in a community environment were all necessary for our own survival and that of the species. As such, being ostracized, rejected, bullied, or outcasted is treated unconsciously as a form of death. This is why stuttering is so painful. It makes one feel disconnected; ashamed; disapproved of; ostracized. These are deeply painful experiences and our unconscious minds will avoid it at high costs.
So, when a person who stutters is approaching an interaction, they are almost always experiencing thoughts in regards to stuttering. There is some concern over the fact that they may stutter and how it will be painful if they do. Their unconscious mind is projecting this very possible future for them. As a result of this future projection there is often an anxiety; sometimes a powerful one. Parts of them are “in this future”.
In scenarios where being approved of or being accepted is “more important” (i.e. authority figures etc.) the anxiety and concern over stuttering is usually more intense. This makes sense because a future projection of being disapproved of by this person(s) would in fact be more painful.
Based on these projections, there is anxiety. There are thoughts of “don’t stutter, don’t stutter”. These thoughts and feelings are a result of the part of us that is “in the future” already experiencing this.
As the graph shows, there is a half second between a block/stutter and the person consciously experiencing the block. There is a full second between movement/speech preparation and the actual conscious experience of speech/movement. In that second, there are an abundance of processes being performed outside of our conscious awareness. During those processes, based on the impending doom of human ostracism due to stuttering, the unconscious mind determines it should disable speech flow. Speech movement is too risky in terms of reward/punishment ratio. The result is an impotent attempt by the conscious mind to perform speech movements that actually would have happened a half second earlier in physical reality. The blocking occurs before we can consciously “intervene” despite numerous and effortful conscious attempts by the person who stutters to enable speech flow.
This is why people often don’t stutter when stuttering isn’t a threat; such as talking alone; talking to animals; forgetting they stutter temporarily. They are no longer projecting a “future of stuttering and ostracism” and therefore speech flows.
So, with the future simulations of shame, embarrasment, and ostracism and with movements being future-oriented and goal-directed, the unconscious mind sees too much of a downside/punishment in the interaction and disables speech flow (Fluent speech is an automatic ability and is far too complex to be performed by the conscious mind alone. Extensive information on that here.)
In diving deeper into unconscious processes evaluating the future rewards for future movements let’s take a look at an article on reward processing and saccades. Saccades are quick, simultaneous movements of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction
In “Reward, Context, & Human Behavior”, Blaukopf & DiGirolamo state (2007) “Studies show that this basal ganglia mechanism modifies the measurable characteristics of voluntary saccades (e.g., reaction time) depending on whether they are followed by a reward.” In other words, if a visual stimulus is deemed rewarding, the person will react by looking more quickly (faster saccade) than if it is not deemed rewarding. This indicates a reward processing that precedes the movement. They then state, “It seems likely that reward and punishment can have an effect on action programming with little cortical processing.” Cortical refers to the cortex which is the part of the brain where distinctly human processes are centered such as conscious thought, language, and reason. So it’s saying that action programming does not need to involve much thought/reason at all. It’s unconscious processing which programs these action/movements; not so much conscious thought.
And lastly Blaukopf & DiGirolamo state (2007), “The speed with which reward information can modulate saccadic programming is also noteworthy. Within ~200 ms, the visual stimulus has been processed and its reward value has affected the programming of the saccade. The mesencephalic dopamine neurons typically respond to rewarding stimuli in less than 100 ms.”
So the preceding quote involves how quickly the brain processes reward and stimulus. We know that there is at least a half second between movement preparation and actual movement performance. Well, reward values for movements (how much reward will be experienced based on the performance of a movement) as you can see from the quote, can be calculated in 1/10th of a second. In 2/10ths of a second, programming of movements (a saccade movement here) can happen. These time spans are far quicker than the speed of environmental stimulus reaching conscious awareness. So the reward expected for a movement precedes our desire to make a movement and our actual performance of a movement. With the pain of stuttering being profound, the reward value for the performance of speech in a person who stutters during an interaction can be deemed profoundly unrewarding prior to one’s conscious awareness. This profound punishment based on the deep human need of acceptance and connection is unconsciously deemed very risky to one’s survival. Unconscious action is taken to prevent it prior to one’s conscious awareness of speaking. Speech movement is inhibited and stuttering results.
Buzsáki, G. (2011). Rhythms of the brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Colman, A. M., & Libet, B. (2015). A dictionary of psychology. Libet’s delay. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100104529
Deecke, L., Marion Engel, W. Lang, and H.h. Kornhuber. “Bereitschaftspotential Preceding Speech after Holding Breath.” Experimental Brain Research 65.1 (1986).
Eagleman, D. (2018, March). David Eagleman: On Time | Rubin Museum of Art. Retrieved from http://rubinmuseum.org/spiral/david-eagleman-on-time
Goodrich, B. G. (2010). We Do, Therefore We Think: Time, Motility, and Consciousness. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 21(5). doi:10.1515/revneuro.2010.21.5.331
James, W. (2009). Psychology: The briefer course. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.
Libet, Benjamin. “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8.04 (1985): 529.
Llinás, R. R. (2008). I of the vortex: From neurons to self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Walla, Peter, Dagmar Mayer, Lüder Deecke, and Stefan Thurner. “The Lack of Focused Anticipation of Verbal Information in Stutterers: A Magnetoencephalographic Study.” NeuroImage 22.3 (2004): 1321-327.
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, May 14). Bereitschaftspotential. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:55, October 25, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bereitschaftspotential&oldid=841195356