Wednesday, July 03, 1996

More on "mysterious blocks"

(Excerpts from a discussion with Woody Starkweather)

"Just to throw my two cents in, I agree with Joe. There is no evidence for a neurological block"

Is there evidence for any other etiology of blocks?

"and what evidence there is suggests that at the higher neurological level stutterers are as fluent as everyone else"

What does it mean to be "fluent" at "higher neurological level"?

"All attempts to find differences in neurological functioning have been negative"

I thought interesting differences in brain scans have been reported. Granted that one can debate about what these differences mean, I thought they were there and worth studying

"This is not to say, of course, that the brain is not a party to the blocks that occur. It could not be otherwise."

What role would the brain play in your opinion?

"But the assumption that the cause is in the brain is just that -- an assumption with no evidence."

Considering that the brain is where the whole process gets started, and that all mechanisms that are external to the brain appear normal in stutterers (fortunately nobody suggests any more that our tongues should be cut), I would consider it a very strong assumption.

"Joe's explanation fits with the facts much better, specifically the tendency for stutterers to stutter in situations where they have experienced a lot of stuttering in the past"

As usual this begs the question of why stuttering should have started in the first place. The assumption here seems to be that some beginning tendency to "stumble" a bit (not YET a problem i.e. the neurophysiology of this child would not be different from that of a non-stutterer) becomes a problem after more and more inappropriate behaviors are learned in order to avoid the original non-problem. At some crucial point these learned mechanisms become so ingrained (indeed in the brain - is this the role you see the brain play, Woody?) that they are hard to impossible to completely unlearn.

This assumption seems corroborated by the common experience of both therapists
and many stutterers that as soon as they start chipping away at some of these
inappropriate behaviours (forcing, scanning ahead etc.) fluency improves.

Where we get in trouble, I think, is in assuming that, at least in principle, the process could be pushed all the way back until you are left with no "original" problem. This is the "unlearning" analog to the hypothetical "brain surgery" thought experiment mentioned by Richard H.

Admitting that there is no "evidence" for either assumption, I find the extrapolation assumption much less compelling than that of an original neurologic cause for the following reasons:

1. The natural tendency of our physiological systems is towards stability and towards recognizing and eliminating errors. Children fall a lot while learning to walk, but they all learn to do it right. I know of no physiological mechanism where an original "non-problem" becomes a problem by compounding and learning inappropriate behaviors.

2. Where learning is involved re-learning or unlearning can be slow and frustrating. But nothing compares with the stubborness with which stuttering "comes back". My native language is Italian and for years I have been speaking English in complete comfort (I came here at 16). I still do have a slight accent (I am told) but I have made no great effort to eliminate it, and no Italian words pop out of my mouth at random the way occasional blocks still do.

3. There are plenty of syndromes whose cause nobody would dispute is neurological and which cause faulty communicative or kinestetic behaviors: Tourette, Autism, Depression, Parkinson come to mind immediately.

In a nutshell I see no examples of "compound learning of inappropriate behaviors" (except at the "highest levels" of stuttering) and I see plenty of examples of neurologically induced behavior problems.

"specifically the tendency for stutterers to stutter in situations where they have experienced a lot of stuttering in the past and to have the feeling that they are about to
stutter in those same situations. No one has yet been able to separate the feeling from the behavior."

Not true. I NO LONGER HAVE THE FEELINGS YOU MENTION, yet I will occasionally still stutter or block. Help me people, I seem to get no aknowledgment of this very simple and basic fact. Only John H. has responded to this with the notion that my subconscious is still playing tricks on me (in the framework of his psychological theory or blocking). Given the little silly words and situations this happens on I must have a very warped subconscious. I just don't buy it.

Am I the only stutterer who experiences this?

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