How Stuttering Works

Actress Emily Blunt speaks at the American Institute for Stuttering's Freeing Voices Changing Lives Gala. Cindy Ord/Getty Images for American Institute for Stuttering

Paul Stamets had a stutter — a bad one. His dad was an engineer and had a full-scale laboratory in the basement of their home. Stamets spent a lot of time in that basement, which makes sense, because stuttering can increase feelings of social isolation. He spent hours mixing explosive chemicals and nursing his plans to become a pioneering researcher.

But when Stamets enrolled in college, he still stuttered, and he still felt like a loner who would never fit in. One day he got hold of some psychedelic mushrooms and headed to nearby woods. He climbed a big tree, but was too intoxicated to climb back down. But that was the least of his problems, because he had an excellent view of storm clouds fast approaching the forest canopy.

The wind began to thrash the branches violently, and a bolt of lightning struck nearby. Stamets feared for his life, but he also felt an overwhelming connection to the world around him. Inspired by the intensity of his emotions, he asked himself whether he wanted to continue living the same isolated existence. It's time to stop stuttering, he told himself repeatedly.

After the storm was over and Stamets went home, his stutter had vanished. Eventually, he became a renowned mycologist (fungus expert), and his stutter never returned [source: Miller]. But he's one of the lucky ones. While childhood stuttering often disappears as person matures, it's extremely rare for adults — even young adults — to lose a stutter once it's established.

But what exactly is stuttering?