A Moment of Science

Stuttering Ear

A whopping three million people in the United States alone are affected by this problem. What is it?

Remember that kid in your grade school class who stuttered? Well, he was in good company–a whopping three million people in the United States alone are affected by this problem.

It isn’t life threatening, but it certainly can be life hampering, as anyone who has a stutter can tell you. There’s something very interesting about stuttering, though, which you might not expect: it can be effected by what you hear. For a long time stutterers have understood that talking along in a group, such as when you recite the pledge of allegiance, can make the problem diminish.

With the age of electronics, it was found that hearing your own voice played back to you almost as soon as you speak helps a stutter as well. That’s called the “Delayed Auditory Feedback” effect. Altering the pitch of the playback gives an extra boost to the effect as well; that’s called “Frequency Altered Feedback.”

Now, researchers at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina have created a small device that combines both these effects in a portable earpiece. The device fits inside your ear, picks up the sound of you speaking, alters the pitch a little, and plays it back to you. The first tests look promising: many of the volunteers who had a stutter found that their problem was helped by wearing such an electronic earpiece.

Scientists who study stuttering sound a more cautious note: such effects, while real, have shown a tendency to be short-term. Still, even if it isn’t a “fix,” tiny microelectronic devices like this may indeed be a help–and we may be seeing more and more of them in the future.

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