In my next few blog posts, I want to talk about the issue of control. People who stutter sometimes feel a loss of control when they are speaking. Their tongue or lips may go to places where they are not meant to be; their larynx may tighten uncontrollably; they feel like they cannot breathe and experience involuntary blocks. This certainly seems like a lack of control, because all these symptoms of stuttering occur without the speaker’s control. However, this does not mean that the speaker does not have control. I will argue that these unwanted symptoms occur because the speaker is exerting too much control in the central processing of speech.
Those of you, who have followed my writings, have heard me say that, according to psycholinguistic experts, speaking must be an automatic process. Automaticity is the requirement for fluent speech. The development of language happens automatically without thinking about the words. Controlling the choice of words, preplanning and scanning ahead is not part of normal speech production.
If you are a person who stutters, when do you stutter most? Is it when you forget that you are speaking or when you try to control your speech so that you will not stutter? We know that many people stutter less when they are alone, caring less about stuttering and taking less control over speaking.
Thinking about words is one form of control. Another is trying to control how you say the words. This involves using a controlled motor program. Sometimes the control of muscle movements is conscious, but at other times the control is subconscious. Many motor programs can be carried out on either a controlled mode or in an automatic mode. Automatic programming is always more efficient, more stable and faster than controlled programming.
Let’s take a minute to experience the difference between controlled and automatic programming. For an example, we can use the movement of the eyelids. Purposefully open and close your eyelids. When you do this you are using a controlled movement program. Do the movements feel heavier, more labored and slower than those automatic movements of your lids that occur throughout the day?
The same difference can occur regarding the speech muscles. We know that in order to speak theses muscles must also move with light, extremely rapid and miniscule movements. This requires the automatic mode. When control is used, muscle movement becomes more labored and, often, muscle groups not normally used to speak are activated. The fluid movement of speaking is compromised and the stuttering symptoms so often associated with lack of control happen because the program used to process speech is one that involves too much control.