America's Stutter-free Idol

in Arts + Media, Pop Culture
February 22nd, 2013


On January 17th, the talented Lazaro Arbos, a 21-year-old from Florida, went viral on Youtube for his amazing performance during his American Idol audition. The most impressive part of his beautiful voice? The fact that it was stutter-free.

During normal speech, Arbos involuntarily makes long pauses and extended vowels, using his hands to trace the words he is trying to convey. However, as soon as he starts to sing, the difficulty disappears. His new Twitter fans are calling it a divine miracle, but the phenomenon is well-known to many stutter sufferers – industry legend has it that B.B.King and Carly Simon were among them!

 

What’s going on here? The disorder is highly varied in its presentation and severity, so science is far from a consensus about the etiology, though there have been some compelling findings. One 2003 study by Van Borsel et al. at the Ghent University Hospital in Belgium showed a marked increase in activation of the right hemisphere during speech in fMRI studies of patients with the speech disorder; more so than in normal speakers, leading to the idea that perhaps this over-activation is interfering with the fluent production of speech on the left. Specifically, a study of stutterers in Frankfurt, Germany found that activity in the right frontal operculum was negatively correlated with the severity of stuttering symptoms in patients, suggesting a compensational role. This area has been associated with timing tasks in speech in healthy controls, adding further possible significance to the specific dysfunction in verbal timing seen in stutterers.

So why was Arbos able to sing Simon and Garkfunkel without a hitch? David Ward, the author of “Stuttering and Cluttering: Frameworks for Understanding and Treatment,” suggests several general theories. Singing and other lyrical modes of linguistics tend to be the domain of the right hemisphere, therefore in stutterers the increased right hemisphere participation is in place to facilitate  fluent language production. Many therapies for language-center damage use music as a way to access communication. Another theory proposes that perhaps music’s rhythmic nature increases fluency by providing timing and changing (lengthening) the patterns of airflow during singing. Finally, from a more psychological perspective, Ward suggests that perhaps singing allows the stutterer to take on a different persona, leaving their speech deficit behind.

Whatever the cause (or the cure) of stuttering is, its seemingly magical disappearance during Arbos’ audition made for great TV, and surely will propel him to the final rounds of America’s favorite talent competition.

Sources:

Florida man with stutter Lazaro Arbos impresses on ‘American Idol’ – The Miami Herald
21-Year-Old With Stutter Wows ‘American Idol’ Judges – mashable.com
fMRI of developmental stuttering: A pilot study – Brain and Language
Stuttering: a view from neuroimaging – The Lancet
Stuttering and Cluttering: Frameworks for Understanding and Treatment - David Ward

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