I was a stuttering child. Whenever I got the slightest bit nervous, I had an annoying tendency to run out of air on vowel sounds, so that beginning a phrase with “A” or “eee” or “I” was all but impossible. I would choke and sputter, my eyes blinking in mad frustration. This minor affliction led me to become extremely self-aware of my speech. Before I said anything out loud, I would consider the breathy weight of the words, and mentally rehearse all those linguistic speed bumps and stop signs. If the phonetics seemed too dangerous, the sentence would be rewritten in my head, edited down to the consonant essentials. While my stuttering has certainly improved – thank you, years of speech therapy! – I think the childhood affliction has left me with an enduring interest in language. And I still hate sentences that begin with the intake of air.
John Updike, in Self-Consciousness, describes his own childhood of stuttering. (“When I stutter,” he wrote, “I am trying, with the machete of my face, to hack my way through a jungle of other minds’ thrusting vines and tendrils.”) Here is Updike describing how this difficulty hurt him into writing:
Stuttering is kind of — I suppose it shows basic fright. Like in the comic strips, when people begin to stutter it’s because they’re afraid. And also, a feeling that — my father thought that I had too many words to get out all at once. So, I didn’t speak very pleasingly, but I never stopped speaking or trying to communicate this way, and I think the stuttering has gotten better over the years. I have found having a microphone is a great help, because you don’t have to force your voice out of your throat, just a little noise will work. But, it was real enough, and one of the things — you know, you write because you don’t talk very well, and maybe one of the reasons that I was determined to write was that I wasn’t an orator, unlike my mother and my grandfather, who both spoke beautifully and spoke all the time. Maybe I grew up with too many voices around me, as a matter of fact.
For me, the lesson of stuttering is that obstacles can also be advantages, that who we become is deeply influenced by what we cannot do. (Or, to quote the sage words of Kanye, “Everything I’m not/made me everything I am.”) The secret is to struggle through, because the very act of raging against a disadvantage generates its own set of skills.
That, at least, is the message of this new paper on Tourette’s Syndrome and cognitive control. Tourette’s is a developmental disorder defined by a set of involuntary motor and verbal tics. The most common tics are eye blinking and throat clearing, although some people with Tourette’s can also suffer from the “spontaneous utterance of taboo words or phrases”. The constant attempt to suppress these tics relies on the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area closely associated with self-control, working memory and motor regulation. Interestingly, this chronic struggle leads to enhanced cognitive control, at least on certain tasks. Consider a 2006 study led researchers at the University of Nottingham. The experiment involved a challenging eye-movement task, in which subjects were forced to actively inhibit automatic eye movements. Here’s where the results get strange: individuals with Tourette’s made significantly fewer error responses than their “neurologically normal” peers, without a decrease in speed. The scientists speculate that this result “likely reflects a compensatory change in Tourette individuals whereby the chronic suppression of tics results in a generalized suppression of reflexive behavior in favor of increased cognitive control.” In other words, the struggle makes us stronger.
That’s also the message of a brand new paper which shows an increase in “timing control” in people with Tourette’s. Here’s the BPS Research Digest:
Carmelo Vicario and colleagues tested nine children with Tourette’s (average age 11 years) and 10 controls (average age 12) on timing perception and timing production. The former involved the children judging whether two circles were on screen for the same length of time or not. The latter task involved the children noting the time that a circle appeared on-screen and then pressing the space key on a key board for the same duration. Half the trials involved intervals in the sub-second range (from 310ms to 500ms), the other half were longer than a second, up to 1900ms.
There was no difference between the groups on timing perception or sub-second timing production. However, the children with Tourette’s were more accurate at the longer ‘supra-second’ version of the timing production task.
On a related note, it’s interesting to think about these timing control advantages in light of the fact that Tim Howard, the goalie on the U.S. World Cup squad, has Tourette’s. Here’s Hampton Sides in the New Yorker:
He [Howard] refuses to take medication for [Tourette's] for fear it will make him “zombielike” and impair his motor skills. “I’m very adrenaline-filled, and I wouldn’t want to suppress that,” Howard said. “I like the way I am. If I woke up tomorrow without Tourette’s, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.“