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Background: I'm a stutterer myself and have always wondered what caused my stuttering. There have been reports of the effects of certain genes and environmental factors that causes stuttering. But there is nothing really concrete as far as I know. The main cause could be a multitude of factors that are up to debate.

From my own experience, I observe that I don't stutter/get a block when I talk to myself, whisper, and sing. Otherwise I stutter, and even more frustratingly I sometime get a speech block and can't begin to say what I want until I change my wording.

The fact that I can speak normally in certain conditions means that I have the physical ability to speak normally.

Question

Based on the neural mechanisms of stuttering, why might a stutterer not stutter when talking to themselves, whispering, singing, etc.?

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I'm a lifelong stutterer myself, great question, +1 –  JMK Dec 2 '13 at 14:50
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'm not an expert in this field, but this seemed interesting enough I did some reading up on the topic. The two review papers I found quickly were Prasse & Kikano (2008) and Lawrence & Barclay (1998), both from the Journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians. I have no idea whether this is a reputable journal or not.

There appear to be three types of stuttering; developmental (acquired during youth, often leaves after age 4), neurogenic (acquired due to neurological trauma), and psychogenic (secondary symptom of latent psychiatric disorder) [1]. Interestingly, the articles disagree on whether psychogenic still exists (see Etiology discussion in [2]). While both articles suggested that the etiology of stuttering is largely unknown (see here, Etiology section), theories suggest that there's a neurologic dysfunction at play and/or physical causes relating to airflow. Specifically, the neurologic dysfunction suggests increased brain activity during speech in stutterers relative to non-stutterers. There's a lot of discussion about genetics and stuttering as well; read the articles for more.

Your situation as described seems to be in the "developmental" case, with a neurologic underpinning. Assuming no car crash or other blunt force trauma in your past, your stuttering comes and goes depending on the situation (i.e., if you're in public or private). As such, the symptoms you describe are likely related to stress, discussed in both articles above. It seems to be understood that stuttering as a disorder can be overcome with time and practice, and it seems that you have managed to do that to a small amount. However, stress is a large factor in stuttering, and can in fact exacerbate the problem tremendously. For what it's worth, I can also state anecdotally that stress is a large factor in stuttering, and for some people the severity of the stutter will increase as a factor of how stressful the situation may be.

I'm not sure that this addresses the singing aspect of your question. Hopefully someone else can address that.

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Stuttering is a neuromuscular disorder. It consists of problems in sequencing and timing the movements required for the speech.

The whisper is speech without vibration of the vocal cords. Since there is no vocal fold vibration, the muscles that control pitch are not active and the larynx does not need to move. This means when the PWS ( person who stutters) whispers, he is bypassing any problem that larynx might have caused.

The rhythm effect : The people who stutters usually become fluent when speaking to an external pace. The external pace can be a metronome, can be singing, or can be choral reading. This is explained like the following: The external timing cues compensate for deficient internal cues for the timing.

Stuttering is intermittent which makes it more unpleasant. PWS labels fluent moments as success, and the stuttering moments as failure. And does everything to avoid stuttering, and all these avoidance behaviors feed the stuttering. At the end, PWS reaches to the point: "Stuttering is everything you do trying not to stutter."

The blocks are exactly "what one does when he is trying not to stutter."

I recommend to all stutterers to read the book "self-therapy for the stutterer" by Malcolm Fraser.

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