Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stuttering, the Mind, and the Body

There are many ailments that start as a problem with some part of the body but are made worse when the mind comes into play. Knee or back pain may have its roots in some physical problem with one's bones, ligaments, or tendons and this may cause some discomfort or pain. But in some individuals, the mind comes into play and this discomfort or pain becomes intensified. Another example is erectile disfunction, which may initially have some physiological roots, start out as relatively mild, but through repeated embarrassing failures end up as a more intense problem. This phenomenon is called the mind/body connection.

It turns out that stuttering has a strong mind/body connection for most people with this problem. It is currently believed that in the great majority of cases stuttering starts in a preschool child because of a malfunction in the motor neuron section of the brain. At this point in time the child is relatively unaware of the problem, but by the time he reaches school age, parents reacting negatively and teasing schoolmates make him acutely aware. What happens at this point is that the mind comes into play  resulting in secondary stuttering characteristics such as blocking, twitching, etc. So the initial fluency problem is intensified by the action of the mind. This mind/body connection (the body part involved being the brain) can be depicted in the diagram below:

Starting from the left, some root cause--in the case of stuttering an abnormality in the brain--leads to a physical problem, namely stuttering.  This physical problem results, at some point, in anxiety which may vary depending upon the context in which the stutterer finds himself (e.g., speaking before an audience).  This anxiety then feeds back into the physical problem, perhaps making the stuttering worse.  So the physical problem is in some sense the product of a body problem (in this case the brain) and a mind problem (in this case the awareness and the anxiety associated with stuttering.

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