The Biology of Consistency

In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins describes the flywheel effect. A flywheel is a mechanical device specifically designed to efficiently store rotational energy. It’s usually a big piece of metal: small flywheels made of lead power children’s toys. Cast iron flywheels are used in old steam engines. Flywheels used in car engines are made of cast or nodular iron, steel or aluminum. So what? How do flywheels relate to the biology of consistency? 

Let’s go a little deeper. Collins used the flywheel concept to perform a thought experiment. Imagine a huge flywheel that weighs 5,000 pounds. You begin to push on it, with all of your strength. This is what comes next, in the words of Collins himself:

 

At first, nothing happens, but slowly, a little at a time, the wheel begins to move. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction.  Three turns … four … five … six … the flywheel builds up speed … seven … eight … you keep pushing … nine … ten … it builds momentum … eleven … twelve … moving faster with each turn … twenty … thirty … fifty … a hundred.

 

Then, at some point — breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum.

 

This is the power of consistency. Push in the same spot, with the same intensity, and you can accomplish great things. Repeat the same actions, over and over, and you can attract great attention. Consistency, it would seem, is the engine of greatness — the force that drives good companies to be better.

 

 

But the flywheel of Jim Collins is a concept of physics and hard to reconcile with biology, even though biology is what controls us as humans. Is it possible to understand consistency from a more human perspective? Is it possible to decode the biology of consistency? As it turns out, you can.

The Cellular Basis of Understanding

A lot of people talk about big brains when it comes to defining how humans are different from other living things, especially other primates. Brain size, however, is just one aspect — and perhaps not even the most important one. How the brain is wired, which scientists now believe is directly related to consistency, may be more critical.

To fully explore the relationship between consistency and cognitive wiring, we must first get some basics out of the way. Consistency refers to interactions that are repeatable, predictable and, as a result, understandable. Understanding occurs in the brain at a cellular level. You may recall from high school anatomy that the cells of the brain are known as neurons. A neuron has a main body, covered in fingerlike projections known as dendrites, and a long tail known as the axon.

The job of a neuron is to transmit electrochemical signals — the fundamental essence of our thoughts and memories — along its length. But a single transmission along a single neuron would not get us very far. So, one neuron likes to keep the party going by passing a signal to an adjacent neuron, from axon to dendrites, across a small gap known as a synapse. When the electrical signal reaches the end of the axon, it stimulates the release of chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, which flow across the synaptic gap, interact with the membrane of the next cell and induce a fresh electrical wave. This happens rapidly and along many neurons.

 

 

Synaptogenesis is the process of forming networks of connections in the brain. Synapses begin forming prenatally in the most primitive areas of the brain, but the process continues throughout life in most other areas of the brain. The kinds of connections that are made and strengthened depend on a person’s specific experiences. Connections used regularly become stronger and branch out into more complex networks.

Cells That Fire Together, Wire Together

Donald Hebb, a Canadian scientist known as the “father of neuropsychology,” helped to bring many of these ideas together in his 1949 book, “The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory.” In the book, Hebb outlines his theory about how learning is accomplished within the brain, a theory now known as the Hebbian Theory or cell assembly theory.

The Hebbian theory aims to explain how neural pathways are developed based on experiences. As certain connections are used more frequently, they become stronger and faster. This is how Hebb described it in his book:

 

When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.

 

This is often described as “cells that fire together, wire together.” Consistency comes to associate networks of neurons and increases their efficiency at working together. It’s not just about increasing the number of cells wired together; it’s also about increasing the conductivity of the wiring so electrical impulses travel more readily, with less resistance.

This Is Our Brain on Consistency

All of this explains the biology of consistency and how it shapes our behavior. It also provides a starting point to understand why marketers and branders focus so intently (or should focus so intently) on delivering consistent experiences. Consistent experiences wire cells into neural networks; neural networks accelerate recognition; recognition leads to trust; and trust fosters loyalty.

 

 

Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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