Silly Putty Isn’t

I remember being fascinated by Silly Putty as a young person. If you formed it into a ball, it would bounce very much like the hard rubber balls we got from “gumball” machines. If you pulled it slowly, you could stretch it into a thread a mile long. However, if you pulled it hard and fast, it would break with a snap. Silly.

Silly putty is a fun type of fluid because it’s viscosity isn’t constant. Viscosity is a property of a fluid that determines how it responds to a stress, basically, how much it will flow if you push on it a bit. Newtonian fluids have a viscosity that is constant relative to the applied stress on it. Water is an example of a Newtonian fluid. Silly putty is an example of a Non-newtonian fluid, in particular it is a shear-thickening fluid: when you apply a stress to silly putty its viscosity goes up!

In non-scientific terms, if you push (or pull) fast and hard on a non-newtonian fluid, it gets stiff and acts like a solid, but if you push (or pull) slowly enough it will flow more like a fluid. The secret is in spreading the stress out over time.

I think people (and the organizations they create) are non-newtonian too. Given enough time to respond to stress (tragedy, change, failure, surprise) people and communities have amazing plasticity. Plasticity is the adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment. When stress comes too fast people cannot respond by adapting and they snap, like my Silly Putty.

Neuroplasticity – or brain plasticity – is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or re-wire itself. Without this ability, any brain, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood or recover from brain injury. What makes the brain special is that, unlike a computer, it processes sensory and motor signals in parallel. It has many neural pathways that can replicate another’s function so that small errors in development or temporary loss of function through damage can be easily corrected by rerouting signals along a different pathway. At birth, each infant neuron in the cerebral cortex has about 2,500 synapses. By two or three-years-old, the number of synapses per neuron increases to about 15,000 as the infant explores its world and learns new skills – a process called synaptogenesis.

We can think of a community (like Kimray) as a brain. Each person has a function and connections to other people and other functions. When stressed or damaged, the community can respond and “heal” by swapping functions and creating new connections within the community. The rate at which the community can absorb and respond to change or damage, like the brain, is dependent on the number of synapses (connections) available and synaptogenesis, the ability to create new connections.

What keeps us from being able to create new connections is rigidity and lack of humility. Once we are comfortable in our current process or state, we stop looking around for better ones. We lose the desire to make new connections. Once we think we have the answer (or all the answers) we stop seeing other’s ideas as potential connections and we lose our plasticity, like an aging brain.

There are some really simple things we can do to avoid this “aging” (or at least slow it down.)

Practice listening to other people. Really listening. Hearing them, not just waiting for them to finish so you can speak. Ask questions in your mind about what they are saying. Find common ground between their view and yours.

Read. A lot. Research indicates that the average person reads 2-3 books a year. By contrast, the average CEO reads as many as 60 books a year. Why? Because they know that every single problem they encounter has been faced before by someone else. They are looking for connections. They are open to seeing how to approach the situations they face from a point of view that is not naturally their own.

Experience art. The visual and performing arts draw us into someone else’s mind. We get to see or experience the world from another person’s view and experience. This is a form of empathy which is very critical to maintaining our plasticity.

Ask questions. A question indicates that you are open to understanding or seeing something new. When I ask honest questions, I am being vulnerable by admitting I don’t know it all. Questions open the door to new connections.

In the summer it was much easier to stretch my Silly Putty out without breaking it. The warmth gave the Silly Putty more plasticity. I think the things above are like that summer sun, heating up the putty of our community and helping us to respond better to stress and change. We cannot control the world and the things that come at us, but we can learn to flow and stretch through them instead of breaking. That isn’t silly at all.