Thursday, July 15, 2010

De-constructing Emily Blunt's stuttering and recovery

Here is an article on Hollywood actress Emily Blunt: How I Beat My Stutter. As I always say: You cannot take away people's experience, but you can take away their interpretation of their experiences. Here is my interpretation of Emily Blunt's experience on why she started stuttering and recovered:

It set in around age 10. “I remember that when it first started to kick in, I thought it was a habit,” she says, “but when it really starts to ingrain itself upon you, it becomes an anguished situation to live your life in, especially when you’re a kid, when you’re only trying to appear very cool. I was definitely not cool.”
Hormonal or physical changes due to the onset of puberty are the most likely cause leading to
occasional jamming. Maybe she had some issues at that time, but doesn't mention them publicly like early start of menstruation. A neurological incident like a virus infection is also possible. Most kids start stuttering at age three to five, but that's not her case as far as we know. Her brain from an early age onwards learned and ingrained the right way of speaking and behaving. Her issue only emerged at age 10, and therefore is most likely neurological that pushed the brain over the edge.

By age 12, when it reached its peak, she stopped speaking altogether. “Why am I like this?” she thought at the time. “Why have I got this stupid voice problem? Everyone else can talk, what’s my problem?”

“My friends started to accept my stutter as just who I was,” Blunt says, “but I didn’t like being accepted in that way. I felt it was a misrepresentation of who I was, what I wanted to say, what I could see in the world and wanted to share.”
After the neurological instability, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive secondary symptoms start.

... Blunt’s mother took her to a battery of specialists. There were relaxation classes, voice classes, and breathing classes. There was “cranial osteopathy.” None of it solved the problem.
The usual story: The mother runs around to many different places to seek help.

And then a teacher offered what seemed like the most appalling possible solution: That she act in the school play. He had seen her telling stories to friends, performing imitations and speaking in funny voices. “You’re insane,” she said, when he first brought it up. “No, absolutely not. Please don’t make me do this.”

“What if you speak in an accent?” he asked, and the idea was just intriguing enough.

“I did it in a Northern English accent, which is very different from how I speak, although it was probably a terrible Northern English accent since I was so young at the time,” she says, “but it was somehow liberating. I wouldn’t say that I ceased to stutter after that, that it was some huge revelation. But for the first time in five years I was able to speak fluently—and in front of 200 people.”
One treatment seems to work. No, the right statement is: One treatment coincides with her recovery from stuttering at a time her hormonal levels and physical changes within the brain stabilized.

Of course, acting gave her a boost of confidence, and relaxed her in front of people. No doubt it contributed to her personal development and well-being.

We also need to remember that she spoke fluently until age 10. So her brain has fluent behaviours ingrained, and she did not have to battle with the old memories of secondary symptoms.

Today she almost never stutters, except very occasionally, when speaking on the phone. “Weirdly, it is when someone asks who’s calling, and I have to say my name,” she says. A lot of stutterers struggle with certain consonants and vowels—c’s and “eh”s were particularly tough for Blunt—and so, in conversation, her brain has always done somersaults to avoid words that were tough. “Can I have the salt?” became, “May I have the salt?” and so on. But the one word she couldn’t get out of saying—and one that begins with an “eh” no less—is “Emily.”
Her brain is probably at the edge but has learned to cope with jamming which is lower because of stabilization of hormones. Only some situations cause jamming or trigger learned behaviours.

But, with the pressures of a growing audience and higher profile roles, her speech only improved, such that she now never worries about the stutter returning. “It’s ironic that I’ve ended up in a job where you have to be able to speak,” she says. “My stutter sort of showed me the way.”
Her experiences has certainly made her grow as a person and given her a meaning of life as an actress. However, I would say that we have no clue why she really recovered. But what's clear is that a neurological reason is more likely than "I did act and acting made me fluent."


Peter Louw said...

A number of stuttering theatre and movie actors, both amateur and professional, have reported great improvement through acting. I don't think that neurology will provide an answer, but rather the following: 1) Initial fluency is obtained through a different accent or role-playing, which is a well-known fluency 'technique' 2) This fluency results in speaking confidence, which reduces speaking stress 3) Reduced speaking stress, more confidence and professional success combine to result in a 'virtuous circle' instead of the usual stutterer's 'vicious circle'. Of course, it doesn't work for everybody -we are not all natural, talented actors or extroverted enough to be actors.

Tom Weidig said...

The vicious circle is part part of the explanation but it's not sufficient. Your arguments are also fallacious.

1) They would not be actors if they kept on stuttering or were stuttering on stage. You have a selection bias. We never hear of the 1000s who tried but didn't get anywhere!!

2) You still haven't explained why some keep on stuttering and others don't while doing the same kind of stuff.

3) You say: Of course, it doesn't work for everybody - we are not all natural, talented actors or extroverted enough to be actors.

I can do that kind of stuff. Watch my Toastmasters' video, but I still stutter.

Anonymous said...

I think Peter makes some pretty valid points.

I believe that speaking in a different voice or accent uses a different neurological pathway and part of the brain as our normal speech, just as singing does. This is why PWS can sing fluently or talk in an accent or funny voice fluently.

There can be a number of reasons as to why this may or may not help recovery. Perhaps the person learns to use this new pathway in his normal speech and over time, the rewiring and brain plasticity forming new neural connections to use this fluent avenue.

Also, as Peter mentioned, during this time of fluency with the altered voice or accent instills confidence in the person. So, any learned behaviors or physchological aspects are being addressed as well.

I think this can very well be the case with Emily. Perhaps she trained her brain to begin using and building new pathways for fluent speech, with acting with different voices and accents as the helper to get that started.

Tom Weidig said...

to Anonym,

but why does it only work for some people???

it can certainly modulate stuttering but not more i believe because she is also FLUENT off the camera!

And it does NOT explain why she started stuttering in the first place at age 10!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

According to Carl Herder of AIS, Emily still blocks very occasionally in casual conversation

ig88sir said...

Any novel way of speaking can trick the brain into bypassing the normal "bad white matter" route. But, for me, it is only for a short window of time. Emily is a female and they have a much more advanced speaking system. No wonder they recover better than males. Brain plasticity is very low after the age of 10 regarding speaking muscles. She must have tapped into the "bigger neural space" she had to get more resources.