A Quick Look Inside the Ol’ Think Tank

I spent a couple of hours this past week talking with my girlfriend, Kelsey, about my stutter and all the ups and downs I have with it. We have talked about my stutter many times in the past but there always seems to be things that change or things that I hadn’t told her before. This time, as we were talking, I tried to explain all the thought processes that I go through each and every time I talk. As we were talking I realized how many people likely have no idea what goes on in the brain of a stutterer. So, I am going to try and give the Cliff’s Notes version of how I process communication with other listeners and speakers.

Having a stutter can be incredibly exhausting sometimes. Your brain works incredibly hard (albeit efficiently) during conversation. It is able to receive information, read the listener’s reactions, and create appropriate responses to what has been heard. Unfortunately, for someone with a stutter it is far from that simple. Of course, a stutterer does have to go through all those same thought processes but there is also the gigantic obstacle of a stutter wreaking havoc on the communication process. The only way I know how to explain this is to describe the steps I go through during regular, everyday communication.

Assuming I am the initial listener in a conversation, the first step is to hear what the speaker is saying to me. I am able to hear them and process the context, topic, and intonation in which they say what they are saying. This step is much the same as normal, fluent speakers. The next step is to formulate a response to the speaker’s thoughts, questions, statements, etc. Again, a fairly normal step in conversation which most, if not all, can relate to. This, however, is likely where the similarities stop, as I am not able to just spit out my thoughts all willy-nilly like some. The next step for me is trying to form my response in a manner where I have the best opportunity to be fluent. This means avoiding words that I know cause me trouble and choosing a word order that has the best flow and thus the best chance for fluency. Now, choosing the right words may not seem like that different of a process from most readers’ own experiences but the reasoning behind it is different. Many choose certain words based on social dictation or based on a listener’s English abilities, and so forth. But my choice of words or phrases is based on my own ability to actually say them.

Let me try and explain this idea visually: the first image you will see represents (in an extremely simplistic form) the process of hearing and responding in conversation.

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Now, anybody who has dabbled in the field of psycho-linguistics will tell you that communication is in no way as simple as the image seen above, but for the sake of this argument I am including information such as the mirror neurons, body language, and many more aspects into the green arrow. If we look at our two friends above, let’s put Timmy on the left and Ashley on the right, we can see Timmy’s information being sent in the red arrow (example: “Winter is my favourite season”). Ashley’s listening process is seen in the green arrow, where her response is tabulated based on an array of topical information, body language observed, social politeness, etc (example: “I don’t really like Winter, it is too cold, but Timmy seems really passionate about this and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so….”). Finally, the response is sent out, as seen in the blue arrow (“…Timmy, I can see why you like winter so much. It is a bit too cold for me though, so I tend to prefer summer”).

[At this point, if you are thinking that I should be a playwright the way I jot down such encapsulating discourse, I couldn’t agree more. ]

Now, let’s take a look at what the above conversation would look like in my head (in this case I am our friend Ashley)

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To give my fingers, and your eyes, a break, let’s just assume that Timmy and Ashley are having the identical conversation as I outlined above (winter good>winter too cold>summer good), except in this case Ashley suffers from a stutter. This means that Ashley is still going through all the typical conversational steps of understanding the statement and reading the speakers non-verbal cues, but she is not done there. Ashley then has to think about the words she wants to say and needs to highlight any trouble words that she is likely to stutter on. Any words that put up a red flag need to be changed to something that may be a little easier to say. This can mean saying “I prefer summer” instead of “I like summer” because that pesky “L” is just too much of a trouble sound. Maybe Ashley has to change the ordering of her words, sometimes repeating a question gives her more time to plan out what she can say. It can also mean, sadly, that she may respond with a simple “You are right” or “I agree” because arguing her point may be too difficult.

The point I would like you, the reader, to leave this post with is that as a stutterer I am constantly having to plan my speech. I not only have to think of what I am going to say but I have to plan out everything I want to say in order to make it as easy on myself as I can. And I have to do this almost every single time anything comes out of my mouth. The irony is, of course, that all this planning and all the strategic word choices may make it easier to speak but it also makes it much more difficult and tends to push my brain to its full capacity. This often means that some days I get home and I am absolutely exhausted from trying so hard to make speaking, something that many take for granted, easier for me.

 

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