Recently a middle-aged woman came to see me in my office because of a chronic problem that she had been suffering from for many years. During my evaluation, I noticed that she started stuttering. After the patient left my office, it got me thinking. Why do people stutter? But, more importantly, do people stutter in other aspects of their life too? As you may know by now, my aim is to understand human behavior and I am always questioning why people do what they do.
So, let me ask you a question: are you a stutterer? But before you answer this question, ponder it carefully. We all have seen a person who stumbles over his words when trying to speak. And I am sure that most of you think that you do not have this condition. Merriam-Webster defines stuttering as, “to speak with involuntary disruption or blocking of speech.” Let’s keep these words in mind: “disruption of thought” and “blocking of speech.”
In the neurological sciences, as in many others, there is a concept called negative feedback. For example, when a hormone is released, it “feeds back” to the gland that produces it, letting it know that there is enough of the hormone, so the gland stops making it.
When we speak, we get feedback through our ears by listening to what we are saying. We know whether we are shouting, whispering or speaking in a normal voice, or whether the content of our speech is appropriate or not. This negative feedback allows us to modify our speech, and enables us to speak correctly. Negative feedback tells us to stop what we are saying or doing, and to do something else. It modifies our response. But if the feedback is too critical, if someone laughs at us, or if we are too sensitive to criticism, it can result in having the opposite effect: it can worsen our speech. In fact, it can stop any response.
Stuttering is an example of how excessive negative feedback can inhibit an appropriate response. So, how can we test this theory, and at the same time, find a treatment for this condition? Since stuttering is caused by excessive negative feedback provided by our ears, what if we were to eliminate the sound of our own voice, so we could not hear it? That experiment was done years ago, where people with severe stuttering were given earphones through which a loud tone was heard to drown out the sound of their own voice. They were then asked to read aloud from a prepared text. The improvement was remarkable. This proved that when excessive negative feedback is eliminated, performance can improve.
Read that last sentence carefully: When excessive feedback is eliminated, performance can improve. Besides your speech, in what other aspects of your life can that statement apply? Well, let’s see. Let me ask you a different question:
- Have you ever noticed that if you can’t remember something, the more you try to remember, the more frustrated you get, and the answer still does not come? And then, when you are doing something totally unrelated, the answer comes to you unbidden?
- Have you ever been in a situation where you are suddenly asked to speak in front of a group, or sing a song, and suddenly you become tongue-tied. You literally start to stutter?
- Have you ever tried to pour water into a bottle with a very narrow neck? What happens? Does your hand start to shake?
In other words, when you do not have a purpose or it is ill-defined, there seems to be no problem. When you are pouring water into a wide container, you can pour it without any problem. But when the purpose becomes more focused, your hand starts to tremble. When you are existing without a purpose, life is “easy.” It is easy to take the easy way out, because going for something that has a purpose can seem to be too hard.
When you do find a purpose, you start to stutter. Because there is excessive negative feedback: you try “too hard”, you are “too careful” not to make an error. And in doing so, you actually amplify the error.
So what is the solution? Not to try too hard to avoid failure? Excessive carefulness is a form of excessive negative feedback. It results in deterioration of performance. Excessive anxiety is exactly the same. It is concerned too much with possible failure. In stutterers, too much negative feedback can cause thought blocking. In “normal” people, too much negative feedback, or fear of failure, it can cause “action blocking,” it can stop us from taking any action.
Self-consciousness is another example of excessive negative feedback. The term “self-consciousness” is a misnomer. We are not really concerned about our self, but about what others are saying about our self. So, it is actually “other-consciousness.” When we become too conscious of what other people think, it stops us from what we want to do.
This is the great irony: If we want to make an impression on other people, we should never consciously “try” to make an impression. The more we want to be successful, the less we should “try” to be successful. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should not strive to be successful. Just like I am not saying that stutterers should stop talking. It is a delicate balance between using negative feedback to improve ourselves and excessive negative feedback that stops us from acting.
So there are 3 possible scenarios:
- You exist in life, never accomplishing much, but just skating by. You never go for the big dream, because its easy to come home and just sit in front of the TV to relax and “escape.” All the activities you do are low risk, and you don’t stutter because you never allow yourself to be in a position that may make you stutter.
- You go for the big dream, but excessive negative feedback either stops you in your tracks, or you stutter and decide it is too hard. You modify your dream by “settling” for a lesser one. You become “good” but not “great.”
- You learn how to overcome your stuttering. You actually control the negative feedback, never allowing it to become excessive. You overcome “self-consciousness” by becoming more conscious of your own self, of who you are, without regard for how others might feel about you. You play your own game, you dance to your own tune, and you go after your own dream.
Which scenario are you in? Which scenario do you want to be in? You decide.
Until next time