Stories are like software for the brain – on transcending my stammer

PersonalMar 2021

It was as if a balloon inflated in my throat. I clenched my abdomen, squinted my eyes, and jutted my jaw forward—all in an attempt to wring out the words on the page. Nothing came. My classmates looked at me perplexedly.

My mom tells me it started in kindergarten, but it’s that memory from a reading assignment in fifth grade that stands out for me. I remember struggling to introduce myself, not raising my hand in class when I knew the answer, ordering the wrong item on the menu, pretending to miss phone calls, and allowing strangers to finish my sentences.

My dad stuttered too, but only occasionally and had no shame around it. This meant that at home this wasn’t seen as a problem, but simply a quirk. I wasn’t rushed into speech therapy, prescribed medication, or given any excuses. The medical literature I could get my hands on at school backed my parents’ view: no known cause, no magic-bullet. This was a battle I had to fight on my own and I was convinced of a future where speaking would be my superpower.

So I searched. I searched in nature, in books, and on the internet for stories through which to view my own experience. I immersed myself in the words of Demosthenes, one of Ancient Greece’s greatest orators, who stuttered. I studied the work of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who documented her own journey after suffering a stroke. I learned about Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, a psychologist who showed the plasticity of the brain by teaching her own learning-disabled brain to read and tell time. I filled my mouth with pebbles to connect with the physicality of speaking, read out loud in front of the mirror, training with the discipline of an athlete and the flow of a musician. My bedroom became a research lab, covered in blue and green sticky notes filled with ideas and schematics drawn in sharpies. In short I took full advantage of the incredibly connected world of which we’re a part.

Stories from around the world gave me the hope, perseverance, and means to transcend my own. I learned the brain can surprise us despite our most advanced postulations.

At 19, I had my first breakthrough. In making intentional eye contact in conversation, I discovered a state of presence, an ability to focus with clarity—much like an athlete. My brain settled and the figment of an image appeared in my mind—that image represented what I wanted to say. Words came out and a new image appeared.

That was the first time I spoke without interruption, blockage, or exchanged words in order to avoid a stutter. In the years that followed, I used every opportunity I had to harness this presence. I chased interactions with strangers, friends, and family. Over time, speaking became my power. In conversation, I found the freedom to express myself. My best thoughts, ideas and breakthroughs now come through speech and, a decade after that first experience, I'm still puzzled by how it all works. I hiccup here and stumble there, but these days I see it as part of the character and mannerism of my speech.

My stutter shaped me greatly. It made me a seeker of knowledge, a believer in the power of understanding the perspective of others by experiencing the world through their eyes.

Today, I see that we experience everything through story. Who we are; what we can and can't do; the culture, religion, and nation into which we are born; what happens in the world and the vast universe of which we are made. My experience has shown me that these stories are like software for the brain – we run on them. Software that can help us make great progress, wreak havoc, and software that should often be revised and upgraded.

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