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[ Winston Churchill ]

Winston Churchill went
to extraordinary lengths to make sure he didn't stutter in public.

Topics of Stuttering Persistence & Recovery

Reification | Addiction to Fluency | Spiritual Aspects

Reification of Stuttering

n the process of reification, stuttering becomes a structure -- an object or thing that is separate (in the beginning) from the person who stutters. In time, stuttering begins to be seen as some thing that is ruling some one's life. When stuttering becomes the identity of the person (as in "I am just a lousy stutterer.") a process of disassociation from the true self has been totally effected. The person's ego -- an expert at taking on and supporting alien identities and self images -- has managed to find a way to totally insulate the stutterer from his true identity. This is no different in some respects from people who see themselves primarily as baseball players, or lawyers, or shopkeepers, or psychotherapists. Self-images such as these are limiting (and, if rigid, will cause problems eventually). But at least they are positive.

Few people manage to find the self-image of a stutterer anything but negative. Winston Churchill (above left) went to extraordinary lengths to cover up his stuttering. His speeches to Parliament were carefully written to avoid "difficult" words and he memorized all of his speeches word for word so there were no surprises. He also seems to have employed pitch modulation as a distraction technique to increase his fluency and used prolongations (at the start of and within words) and the "mmm" sound as "starter" techniques (as in "mmmmnahzies.")

Psychotherapists or psychological theorists are very good at pointing out to the stutterer how completely stuttering is ruling his/her life. This is intended to be a motivational tool. There are several popular and useful systems theories, such as the "Stuttering Hexagon," that are designed to do the same thing -- motivate the stutterer to see that his beliefs, attitudes, intentions, thoughts, behaviors, and other activities are actually supporting stuttering and "must be dealt with" to overcome stuttering.

These tools provide valuable insights and can help initiate the process of change. But unfortunately, they can also lead to an increased reification of stuttering, subverting recovery. Ironically, this happens because the insights of the "systems approach" can become subject to the same subversion used by the ego to overthrow the true identity in the first place.

If the person uses a systems explanation to view himself as a person whose defining characteristic is stuttering, he may begin to see stuttering everywhere he looks and assume that all or most of his personal "problems" can be explained by his dysfluent speech and his reactions to it. In fact, many self-images and self-destructive behaviors only involve stuttering coincidentally. Some may not even involve stuttering at all. Reducing everything to a stuttering problem tends to one-dimensionalize the self and inhibits inquiry into other aspects of the life and identity.

At the same time, "psychological approaches" engage the ego in a reductionist monolog. Stuttering is not logical in any sense that is normally understood by the conscious mind. To engage in a conscious analysis of concepts such as "holding back," "avoiding," "thinking too hard," or "over-controlling" is not productive, particularly because of the mind's associative tendencies.

The "holon" is a concept created by Arthur Koestler and used by Ken Wilber to identify evolutionary hierarchies in natural, societal, and personal development. Stuttering is a result of a secondary development that occurs after the formation of the person's basic personality. In the ascending holons of "soul," "self," "personality," and "stuttering behavior," soul and self are the lowest in the hierarchy and the most essential, personality is less essential, and stuttering behavior the least essential, but the "highest" in the hierarchy. The person who has reified his/her stuttering sees the hierarchy as exactly the opposite of this. Stuttering is seen by most people who stutter as the major underlying barrier to their achievement of self-realization. We are "giants in chains" who would be President of the United States or the World's Greatest Teacher if only we didn't stutter.

Psychological explanations teach that the entire self supports the stuttering behavior, reinforcing the reification. In fact, the "system of stuttering" is really a separate (albeit extremely powerful) collection of self-images and physical reactions that is "tacked on" to (and becomes associated with) the personality fairly late in development. It seems so powerful because it is blocking the expression of the true self, and it is supported by conditioning that has actually caused physical changes in the person's neurological functioning. But it doesn't define one's soul, or self, or even one's personality.

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Carly Simon & Her Mother

Carly Simon & her mother, taken by Carly's father, Richard Simon, a principal of Simon & Schuster, which has published some excellent books on stuttering.

Is There an Addiction to Fluency?

Because of the apparent obsessive-compulsive nature of some accessory stuttering behaviors, it has been supposed by some observers that there is an addictive aspect to stuttering. The "logical" behavior to associate with an addiction was stuttering itself. This has resulted in an incredible insult to people who stutter: the idea that they actually want to stutter, rather than to be fluent, and that an addiction to stuttering is why achieving greater fluency is so difficult for them.

For a person who stutters (PWS), the experience of temporary fluency is one of the greatest pleasures of life. The feeling of being able to express one's self without blocking or hesitations is one of the dreams that PWS have. The fact that the brain strives to make the person unconscious of stuttering when it occurs is one indication of how important fluent speech is to human beings. Of course, in the PWS, there is a huge conflict with the sub-cortical brain's competing attempt to inhibit the person from speaking in situations where it anticipates stuttering to be dangerous. This is the nature of human behavior disorders: that the brain is working at cross-purposes to itself in a manner that is simply not healthy or logical.

It is a common observation that -- when given a chance to talk openly -- many PWS will talk much more than the average fluent person. I have had the interesting experience, while serving at stuttering support group booths at various events, to observe that the stuttering booth is typically the site of a large amount of talking in a sea of relative quiet. There are some speech pathologists, such as William Perkins, who see this talkativeness as an outlet for repressed assertiveness or aggression. Perkins has even gone so far as to say that some PWS who insist on continuing to speak while stuttering are committing acts of open and hurtful aggression against the people to whom they are talking.

There is another, more plausible explanation for this phenomenon, however. That is that PWS are addicted -- like every other human being -- to the feeling of fluency. And that unlike most other humans, they have a disorder that prevents them from getting their fluency "fix" much of the time.

Recent research has shown that many human behaviors are associated with "reward" systems in the brain, usually characterized by the presence of dopamine neurons in the circuit. Examples of the types of consummatory behavior that result in the human brain administering "rewards" to itself include sex, drinking water, eating, and other behaviors important to survival (Chen, et.al. [1993]. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 5, 315-320.) The fact that such reward systems are present is a big factor in substance abuse and other disordered addictions. The fact that these rewards have been experimentally proven to be associated with consummatory behavior and not preparatory behavior is the key to their motivational power (Pfaus, et.al. [1990] Brain Research, 530, 345-348.)

The possibility here is that fluent speech is one of the behaviors for which the brain self-administers internal rewards. This is not really a startling proposal. In fact, the obvious pleasure that people take from talking makes it difficult to believe that this would not be so. (This pleasure is probably one reason it's so difficult for fluent people to understand stuttering.)

There is nothing damaging about self-administering rewards if behavior is conducive to health and well-being. After all, that is their function -- to encourage and reward behavior that enhances chances of survival. But, in the presence of a blockage -- an inability to obtain the reward -- accessory or undesirable behaviors can become strategies for getting the "fix." I propose that this is the physical basis of the addiction to fluency seen in people who stutter. And the conscious manifestation of this addiction (commonly expressed as "worshipping the fluency god") can be one of the greatest deterrents to recovery. In fact, competent speech therapists have found that addressing the tendency to strive for fluency for its own sake is virtually a requirement for success in speech therapy. This insight is really nothing new. It is an overt aspect of most successful stuttering therapies and probably occurs in the natural course of many other therapies at some point without the conscious knowledge of the participants. It explains, in part, the energy behind the child's attempts to be fluent at all costs. And it explains the power of the conditioning associated with stuttering itself.

It was noted by Charles Van Riper that stuttering behavior is rewarded when the PWS is intermittently able to use maladaptive speech movements to break through a stuttering "block." The temporary fluency that results from this intermittent success -- which is sometimes associated with five or ten words during which stuttering is relieved -- would be reinforced by the brain's dopaminergic reward system. This would encourage the PWS to use the technique again in the future to break through the feeling of blocking -- which (remember) involves a preparatory behavior that is not rewarded. The stuttering is rewarded only indirectly. It is the intermittent fluency which is actually rewarded. It is this fluency that the PWS seeks to achieve, through the use of accessory behaviors and avoiding or forcing one's self through the feeling of dysfluency that accompanies the pre-cortical reaction (possibly mediated by the amygdala.) As the reactions increase, so does the addiction to the rewards of fluency, until the reaction and the addiction completely take over one's life.

This hypothesis has important implications for stuttering therapy and explains some of the variability of stuttering severity and recovery. In particular, it would explain why the temporary achievement of spontaneous fluency can paradoxically be so damaging to the PWS's hopes for recovery. And why focusing on fluency in therapy is such a "slippery slope."

Finally, it is important to caution that addiction to fluency would apparently explain only part of stuttering behavior. For a disorder like stuttering to develop, it's likely that there are a number of precipitating factors that lie outside normal experience. And the fact that stuttering does not usually develop in later life in response to psychological problems would indicate that addiction to fluency is a complicating factor in stuttering development, not a primary or definitive one.

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[ Sir Isaac Newton ]

Isaac Newton asked
that the windows of Parliament be closed
so the public
wouldn't hear his stuttering

Spiritual/Personal Growth As Aspects of Recovery

Self identifications with the physical body and its behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes are a problem for everybody, but particularly so for people who stutter. John Larkin's message in his hit song Scatman is that "everyone stutters one way or the other," in that all people have blockages or behaviors that prevent them from living their lives as their true selves. "If the Scatman can do it, so can you," he says, meaning that if he can find a way closer to his true ego identity (the free, cocky, and amazingly articulate "Scatman") despite (or even because of) a relatively severe disorder like stuttering, there's an opportunity for others whose "blocks" may be experienced in different areas to do the same.

I've gotten a degree of insight and understanding by making stuttering only one of the subjects of an inquiry into my entire life. This has allowed me to become more conscious of my stuttering and my thoughts about it, putting it into a more realistic perspective and decreasing the importance of fluency for its own sake. The general idea is that we are prisoners only of what we run from, and that we can become free (dis-identify) from what we embrace.

There are many ways of working on the personality in this way. The Transpersonal approach described in the writings of Ken Wilber (author of The Spectrum of Consciousness and A Brief History of Everything), Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), and others, seeks to transcend the personality by incorporating higher and higher states of consciousness and self-awareness with the ego, transforming it. My own personal work has been undertaken as a student of the Ridhwan School, which uses a more accommodating and experiential (but no less rigorous) spiritual growth process that begins with exploring the personality as an initial step toward finding (and then being) the true self that the personality is designed to hide.

However, in doing personal growth work, I have found it helpful to strive to give up the idea that the objective or goal of such work is to directly improve my fluency. Using a personal growth approach to work on only one aspect of the self or personality is inherently limiting. I feel that my personal work has probably improved my fluency; but only as an indirect result of the process of growth.  For a person who stutters, how can a personal growth program without actual speech therapy truly be called "holistic?"

Go ahead to Research Vs. Anecdote

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1994 - 2006 Darrell M. Dodge, MA, CCC-SLP

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Last Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2007