I recently started reading Stuttering: The Search for a Cause and Cure by Oliver Bloodstein. Although I am only 71 pages in, this book has already completely captivated my attention. As I read it, I would like to share some of what I am learning about stuttering through several blog posts along the way.
Here’s what I have learned so far!
According to the author, stuttering in its early stages most commonly begins between ages 2-5 and rarely begins after adolescence. Interestingly, stuttering is far more common in males than in females. Several explanations have been suggested for this “gender ratio,” but the reason remains a mystery.
I also learned that although 80% of children who stutter recover by adulthood, about 1% of the population continues stuttering into adulthood. Additionally, research has shown that many stutterers had difficulty with pronunciation and articulation as young children. I closely identified with this discovery. When I was just learning how to talk, I went to speech therapy for help with pronouncing certain letters, particularly s‘s and w‘s. This leads me to believe that maybe my problems with pronunciation were the first signs of an underlying speech disorder.
Oliver Bloodstein opens the book by sharing some early theories on stuttering. The first theory I read about suggests that stutterers are born with a weak neuromuscular speech apparatus that has a tendency to break down, especially under stress. Bloodstein explains the theory this way: “The stutterer’s vulnerable speech system performs normally as long as stress is absent.” Although this is not necessarily true in every case, I can definitely relate. There have been times when I have made it through whole conversations without stuttering one time. However, that same conversation in a high-stress situation would have been extremely difficult for me.
A second theory proposed that anticipation of stuttering causes stuttering. This theory centers solely on the mental aspect of stuttering, rather than the physical. The basis of this theory is that anticipating the stutter creates anxiety, which in turn causes the person to stutter. In other words, if we could just speak freely without worrying about stuttering, maybe we wouldn’t stutter. Bloodstein concludes, “The concept accords well with the observation that stutterers have little difficulty with their speech when they forget that they are stutterers, and with the belief of many stutterers that their speech is at its worst when it is most important to speak well.” Although simply reducing anxiety does not solve the underlying physical disorder, it could certainly help alleviate the stutter.
One fascinating thing I learned was that research on stuttering began as early as the time of Aristotle. In fact, the Greeks were the first to investigate stuttering, focusing primarily on the tongue and its role in speech. Some hypothesized that stuttering is the result of a weak or swollen tongue. Research continued into the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, when the four basic components of the human body were believed to be moisture, dryness, heat, and cold. Therefore, many people thought that either an excess or lack of any of these properties in the brain, tongue, or muscles causes stuttering.
By the 17th century, research had moved toward observation of the larynx, breathing mechanisms, nerves, and the brain. By the 19th century, research shifted toward neurology. Researchers started to believe that a underlying neurological disorder causes stuttering. Something going wrong in the brain, they thought, affects breathing and proper functioning of the tongue and larynx.
As neurological study progressed, a new wave of treatment methods appeared, including suggestion, relaxation, and distraction. Most of these methods eventually lost popularity, because they only offered temporary relief. By teaching new and unnatural speech patterns, these methods often resulted in immediate fluency. Once the novelty wore off though, I read that most people experienced debilitating relapses. This hit home for me, because I have experienced firsthand how speaking in a new or unnatural way can produce fluency, but only for a short time.
As the 20th century approached, some began using psychoanalysis to study stuttering. Although the idea that stuttering is purely a matter of the mind took root for a short time, most researchers and speech therapists eventually rejected it. Today, the only place where the idea still thrives is among psychiatrists and psychotherapists for the most part.
In the 1930s, a brand new theory arose. The foundation of this theory is that one half of the brain, either the left hemisphere or right hemisphere, always dominates over the other. The more dominant hemisphere, I learned, controls exactly when nerve impulses reach the speech muscles. According to the Orton-Travis Theory of Cerebral Dominance (named after its authors), stuttering happens when cerebral dominance does not exist, causing nerve impulses to interfere with one another and reach the speech organs at different times. This lack of dominance, as Bloodstein explains, results in “conflict between the hemispheres, inadequate synchronization of the nerve impulses to the paired speech muscles, and a predisposition to stuttering.”
Orton and Travis also tried to prove that because neither of the hemispheres dominate, most stutterers are therefore neither right-handed or left-handed.
The Orton-Travis Theory of Cerebral Dominance eventually lost popularity due to conflicting evidence, but I think that it was another great step toward discovering the cause of stuttering. It is truly remarkable to read about the long history of stuttering and how far research has come.
I had planned to include much more in this blog post, but I think I’ll finish right here. This is already much longer than planned! 🙂 Thank you so much for joining me! I am enjoying learning so much about stuttering, and I hope you do too. In the next few days, I’ll pick up with what I learned about additional research in the 1930s.
Much love, Makenzie