Emotional and Physiological Responses of Fluent Listeners While Watching the Speech of Adults Who Stutter

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Background: People who stutter produce speech that is characterized by intermittent, involuntary part-word repetitions and prolongations. In addition to these signature acoustic manifestations, those who stutter often display repetitive and fixated behaviours outside the speech producing mechanism (e.g. in the head, arm, fingers, nares, etc.). Previous research has examined the attitudes and perceptions of those who stutter and people who frequently interact with them (e.g. relatives, parents, employers). Results have shown an unequivocal, powerful and robust negative stereotype despite a lack of defined differences in personality structure between people who stutter and normally fluent individuals. However, physiological investigations of listener responses during moments of stuttering are limited. There is a need for data that simultaneously examine physiological responses (e.g. heart rate and galvanic skin conductance) and subjective behavioural responses to stuttering. The pairing of these objective and subjective data may provide information that casts light on the genesis of negative stereotypes associated with stuttering, the development of compensatory mechanisms in those who stutter, and the true impact of stuttering on senders and receivers alike. Aims: To compare the emotional and physiological responses of fluent speakers while listening and observing fluent and severe stuttered speech samples. Methods & Procedures: Twenty adult participants (mean age = 24.15 years, standard deviation = 3.40) observed speech samples of two fluent speakers and two speakers who stutter reading aloud. Participants' skin conductance and heart rate changes were measured as physiological responses to stuttered or fluent speech samples. Participants' subjective responses on arousal (excited-calm) and valence (happy-unhappy) dimensions were assessed via the Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) rating scale with an additional questionnaire comprised of a set of nine bipolar adjectives. Outcomes & Results: Results showed significantly increased skin conductance and lower mean heart rate during the presentation of stuttered speech relative to the presentation of fluent speech samples (p<0.05). Listeners also self-rated themselves as being more aroused, unhappy, nervous, uncomfortable, sad, tensed, unpleasant, avoiding, embarrassed, and annoyed while viewing stuttered speech relative to the fluent speech. Conclusions: These data support the notion that stutter-filled speech can elicit physiological and emotional responses in listeners. Clinicians who treat stuttering should be aware that listeners show involuntary physiological responses to moderate-severe stuttering that probably remain salient over time and contribute to the evolution of negative stereotypes of people who stutter. With this in mind, it is hoped that clinicians can work with people who stutter to develop appropriate coping strategies. The role of amygdala and mirror neural mechanism in physiological and subjective responses to stuttering is discussed.