The Relationship Between Executive Function and Ego Depletion in “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler

Madyson Crea

“Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler depicts a world where the ability to communicate has been stripped from humanity. The short story was initially published in 1983 in a science fiction magazine. The main character, Valerie Rye, was once a history professor at UCLA. After the illness took away speech, Rye’s world descended into a dystopian state. As a result, she could only ensure her safety and fundamental needs. Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” exhibits the psychological limits of logical thinking through her main character as she achieves and loses security at an alarming rate causing ego depletion, decision fatigue, and ultimately decreasing her faculty to self-regulate.

The main character, Rye, and her executive function are the concentration of this analysis; however, the author’s psychological state provides a basis for understanding the main character’s situation and reactions. Octavia Butler was experiencing many of the struggles her character faced in “Speech Sounds”. The afterword in Butler’s story gives insight into her motivation and psychological state while writing the story. Butler tells the reader that the story “was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back.” (Butler, page 12). This echoes Rye’s emotional progression throughout the story. At first, she has little hope for humanity or the future. Rye thinks, “Today’s children gathered books as well as wood to be burned as fuel. They ran through the streets chasing one another and hooting like chimpanzees. They had no future” (Butler, 8). As a teacher, this mentality is demoralizing for Rye. With no hope for children and no one to teach, she has no purpose, no goal. By the end of the story, Rye’s outlook on humanity drastically changes. She regains hope resembling Butler’s experience. This hope is acquired while observing two children with the ability to speak. It forces her to wonder, “What if all they needed were teachers? Teachers and protectors…She had been a teacher. A good one. She had been a protector, too, though only of herself.” Rye experiences several ups and downs throughout the story most of them happening rapidly in comparison to her hope for humanity’s future which takes the entire story to shift. These swift fluctuations in emotion result in impaired decision-making, demonstrating how regardless of the situation, violent, sexual, maternal, etc., humanity is predisposed to certain behaviors.

Rye’s ego depletion is intensely linked to her executive function, and this phenomenon is demonstrated throughout the story. Executive function is “higher level cognitive processes of planning, decision making, problem solving, … [and] inhibition of competing impulses” (VandenBos). For the purpose of this analysis, executive function also referred to as cognitive control, is simply the ability to self-regulate and consciously make choices. The foremost impact on Rye’s executive function is ego depletion. Dr. Baumeister defines ego depletion as “a state in which the self does not have all the resources it has normally… Ego depletion renders the self temporarily less able and less willing to function normally or optimally” (Baumeister, 116). Rye and humankind in “Speech Sounds” are indefinitely suffering some level of ego depletion as they lack the essential resource of communication.

Self-preservation plays a crucial role in Rye’s decision-making process, suggesting that she is fighting to maintain her safety. “Every day had brought her closer to the time when she would do what she had left home to avoid doing: putting her gun in her mouth and pulling the trigger” (Butler, 8). The only reason she ventured out into the world was based on survival. Rye consciously decided to seek out her brother and nephews in search of love and belonging. She had met her fundamental needs at home and maintained her safety. However, her need for love and belonging was not met, which triggered thoughts of suicide. This decision can be explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, which suggests that when “lower level [needs] are fulfilled, those on the next level will emerge and demand satisfaction” (Trivedi, 1). Rye had delayed her journey “until loneliness and hopelessness drove her out. (Butler, 1). She hesitated to leave as she knew she would be risking her safety. At her home, she had a base level of executive function until she lacked the will to live – an essential resource – which compelled her to risk her security from external threats and attempt to fulfill higher-level needs.

Once on the bus to Pasadena, Rye was alert and cognitive of the dangers she encountered. She was not suffering any ego depletion until a fight broke out between two passengers. Rye effectively removed herself from the bus but severely depleted her ego while fighting to maintain her safety. A stranger dispersed the fight with tear gas. When the unfamiliar person asked Rye to get in his vehicle, she consciously weighed her options. The main struggle was the lack of clarity and uncertainty about possible outcomes. She was either in danger from the bystanders who fled the bus or Obsidian, a stranger. Her decision to get into Obsidian’s vehicle was heavily influenced by “ambiguous, uncertain, inconsistent, or conflicting standards [which] make self-regulation difficult.” (Baumeister, 117) This situation did not exhibit a complete lack of cognitive control. However, Rye’s emotions, and perhaps unconscious desires, were heavily involved in her decision. She tried to convince herself he was safe, “Maybe he was just alone. She had been alone herself for three years.” (Butler, 5). Rye was trying to justify her poor decision by empathizing with Obsidian. After choosing to get in the vehicle, she suppressed her conscious thoughts because “If she had let herself think of the possible deadly consequences of getting into a stranger’s car, she would have changed her mind.” (Butler, 5). This entire situation was emotionally and mentally draining. An accurate explanation of Rye’s psychological state is that the “ego depletion induced prosocial, reciprocal behaviors in response to highly trusting prosocial behaviors shown by a stranger partner in a one-shot encounter” (Halai, 752). Her cognitive abilities were depleted when she was forced to make a difficult decision. Consequently, she reciprocated Obsidian’s social behavior and agreed to go with him. Obsidian’s willingness to interact with Rye and offer of companionship in conjunction with a stressful situation caused Rye to get in his car even though she would not have under different circumstances.

Once Rye and Obsidian are alone, she is reassured by his willingness to follow her instructions. She can decompress from the prior situation and regain composure. Unfortunately, this calm does not last. When Obsidian takes out a map and asks her where she wants to go, she realizes he can read.

This realization and, subsequently, her reaction are emotionally charged and almost incapacitating. “Abruptly, she hated him—deep, bitter hatred… he was literate and she was not. She never would be. She felt sick to her stomach with hatred, frustration, and jealousy. And only a few inches from her hand was a loaded gun” (Butler, 6). Rye’s quick and passionate reaction is an example of “immediate experienced emotions [that] are viscerally driven”. Rye felt the hatred rush over her without much time to comprehend her feelings. Her emotional reaction was “dominant under a shortage of cognitive control resources”, she felt nothing except overwhelming rage (Halai, 752). Before acting, Rye is able to compose herself, “her rage crested and ebbed and she did nothing” (Butler, 6). This is an example of Rye using self-restraint instead of immediately acting on her violent thoughts. When she reflects on her intense reaction, she realizes that “she had experienced longing for the past, hatred of the present, growing hopelessness, purposelessness, but she had never experienced such a powerful urge to kill another person” (Butler, 7). This powerful impulse took considerable effort to prevent taking action. The origin of her restraint was cognitive control: “the ability to ‘deliberately inhibit dominant, automatic, or prepotent responses’ in order to maximize the long-term best interests of the individual” (Halali, 746). Rye knew that killing Obsidian because of jealousy was not in her best interest, nor was it acceptable. She cognitively regulated her emotions and deferred to executive function rather than acting violently. Regulating this urge caused significant depletion in her ability to self-control leading to the subsequent events.

Obsidian propositioned Rye for sex only shortly after she had felt resentment toward him and his ability to read. Although she was initially hesitant, once Obsidian had addressed her concerns regarding possible consequences, she was convinced and eager to feel a connection. Her inhibitions were dwindling. Not only because she had not experienced intimacy in several years but because “self-control relies on a limited resource that gets depleted when one tries to inhibit competing behaviors, urges, or desires… As a result, an initial act of self-control impairs subsequent acts of self-control” (Halali, 746). Rye’s restraint from violence towards Obsidian took a lot of effort, making her less able and willing to control the want to have sex. In the study Halai conducted, subjects “reciprocated more when cognitive control resources were limited.” (752). Suggesting that reciprocating Obsidian’s affection was based on Rye’s exhausted mental state and ego depletion in conjunction with her previous self-restraint decreasing her willingness to deprive herself of a separate desire.

After intimacy, Rye asks Obsidian to come home with her. At first, he is hesitant… but eventually, he agrees. This results in Rye disbanding her journey to her brother’s and deciding to return to her own home. Obsidian sees a woman in danger on the way and stops the car to help. Rye has little control over this situation but later reflects that she similarly would have stopped to help. In Obsidian’s efforts to aid, he is killed by the aggressor. The companionship Obsidian offered is yanked from Rye. “It was as though she had been snatched from comfort and security and given a sudden, inexplicable beating. Her head would not clear. She could not think.” (Butler, 12). Rye acknowledged that she could not process the situation clearly. The deprivation she felt made her sick. She had nothing left to give when the two children approached her. Dr. Halai explains that “negative emotions provoke immediate self-centered emotions that dictate behavior” (Halai, 752). After seeing the two orphans, Rye reverted back to survival mode, which is inherently self-centered. “She did not need any more grief. She did not need a stranger’s children who would grow up to be hairless chimps” (Butler, 10). Rye had lost all hope for human connection and subsequently lost hope in humanity. The negative emotions she felt caused “a shortage of cognitive control resources [which] led to an increase in negative reciprocity; that is, people tended to punish unfair treatment more often when they were depleted” (Halali, 748). Rye experienced an unfair situation, the loss of Obsidian, and subsequently was going to punish the two toddlers who had no part in his death.

Rye then realized that she should bury Obsidian. At this moment, she took inventory of her thoughts and comprehended that she was going to leave two innocent toddlers to die. Instead, she decides “she would have to take the children home with her. She would not be able to live with any other decision” (Butler, 11). Rye is completely spent, but she regulates herself. Dr. Halai explains, “guilt prohibits immoral behavior by the expected guilt following an immoral behavior” (Halai, 752). The thought of living with herself, something she was already struggling with, was too much. Even though she had experienced a negative situation that led to selfish behaviors, the anticipated guilt of leaving the children overwhelmed her initial self-centered reaction. She put Obsidian, the children, and their mother in the vehicle and took them home. Baumeister presents an alternative reason for Rye’s decision. Rather than acting out of guilt, perhaps she acted out of the need for connection. Baumeister states, “the desire for social connection is one of the three most basic and powerful human motives. That motive is ultimately what comes into conflict with selfish impulses” (Baumeister, 120). Even though Rye’s initial reaction was to leave the children, she needed a human connection and, more importantly, a reason to live.

Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” demonstrates that humanity fundamentally needs social connection and purpose beyond surviving. Rye’s executive function is inhibited by ego depletion throughout the story, making it challenging to function rationally and, at times, compassionately. Yet, all decisions that contradict her executive function have a common motivator. She desired love and belonging when she left home to find her brother. She found a connection in Obsidian, and though it was promptly taken from her, ultimately finds purpose and her capacity for compassion in the two orphans. “Speech Sounds” reminds readers that, above all, humans desire to belong and connect. Sometimes the need for relationships contradicts logic. However, it is necessary to provide a sense of purpose and will to live beyond merely surviving.

Works Cited

Baumeister, Roy F., and Kathleen D. Vohs. “Self‐Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation.” Social and personality psychology compass 1.1 (2007): 115-128.

Butler, Octavia E. “Speech Sounds .” Future Lives, 5 Sept. 2002,

Dimmock, Mark, and Andrew Fisher. “Conscience.” Ethics for A-Level, 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, 2017, pp. 157–167. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2023.

Halali, Eliran, et al. “Between Self-Interest and Reciprocity: The Social Bright Side of Self-Control Failure.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 143, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 745–54. EBSCOhost,

Trivedi, Anjanaben J., and Amit Mehta. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs-Theory of Human Motivation.” International Journal of Research in all Subjects in Multi Languages 7.6 (2019): 38-41.

VandenBos, Gary R. “Executive Function.” APA Dictionary of Psychology, American Psychology Association, 2023, Accessed 1 May 2023.


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