The Gumby Story: A Lesson in Staying Mentally Flexible

Dr. Chad McIntyre

After a brainstorming session for this month’s newsletter a couple of weeks ago, I knew that I wanted to tell you this story. This is one of my favorite stories in my career to date, now pushing closer to 15 years than ten. I want to tell it because it has been a trying time in our lives. Stress levels have peaked; we are all burdened with the glorious purpose of figuring out how to navigate this new era, but that is hard, and not without its various trials. So, I hope this story will be used to help you navigate, as it once did me in a different trying period. 

Once upon a time, there was a woman stressed to the maximum level of her tolerance. As the emotional weight of her situation built to the point of feeling like she had an anvil sitting on her neck, pushing her down into the depths of despair, she went into a flea market to browse. Typically, she found shopping in such a place to be therapeutic, but she was so sucked into this vicious cycle of negativity that everything she saw only served as lighter fluid to the pessimistic fire inside of her. That is, until she saw the Gumby figure. This random toy of the Art Clokey-created clay animation icon made famous via the 1950s TV show jarred her out of her funk. As she studied it and bent its limbs in every which direction, she came to the following conclusion: “I need to be more flexible in how I think and how I live my life.” Inspired by the toy, she bought it and set it up in her home as a reminder to remain flexible. A few times per year, she changes its location, continually renewing the reminder. 

Patients at Triad Upper Cervical Clinic might have heard this story before. When the aforementioned woman told me about the Gumby story and the purpose it served for her, I thought it was amazing. She could clearly see how graciously that story had landed with me.  So, the next time she came in to be checked, she had gone back to the flea market and bought a Gumby toy just like hers for me, so we too have a Gumby that sometimes sits on the desk, hangs from the coat rack, or wraps around door handles, similarly reminding us to be flexible in our lives. 

Mental flexibility is vital to a balanced and rewarding life, yet we all struggle with it. It is among the best kept secrets in America’s oddly coined “healthcare” and among the fastest growing topics in the budding Health Revolution, as I like to call it. Food for thought: as Dr. Jennifer Verdolin discussed in an article for Psychology Today referencing researchers Watzek, Pope, and Brosnan’s study published in Scientific Reports, “Humans have been shown to be among the least mentally flexible animals among the classifications that include higher functioning brains.” 

In a study in 2019, humans were compared to other animals in how quickly they adapted when a more efficient strategy was presented to solve a problem. Humans were shown to be mentally flexible 1% of the time, whereas 70% of the apes studied adopted the new way that earned the reward faster. Basically, humans were shown to be lazy and stuck in their ways compared to apes. As time went on, eventually all the apes proved flexible enough to become more efficient, compared to only 39% of humans (even when humans watched a video of another person taking the more efficient route!). That is kind of embarrassing, is it not? We can be better. Our capacity is so much greater! But we have to try. Health is about habits, and that is on each of us to recognize and act upon. 

To get your mental (clinically referred to as cognitive) flexibility invigorated, here are a few simple suggestions: change your routine on purpose: like alternating between a heavier emotionally weighted task and a comparably easy going one, pursue new challenges, meet and get to know new people, change your location, question your thoughts and words and assumptions. I found this home run quote in my research, “Our mind is like a muscle, the more ways that we stretch it, the more flexible it becomes. With practice and awareness, we can begin to develop a more agile mind which helps us to live more resilient, creative and fulfilled lives.” 

So, going back to the Gumby story, it is a seemingly small thing, a bendable toy. There is just something about things like the Gumby, though, you know? Finding inspiration in something pretty random, but at just the right moment for it to connect with you? That is divine, my friends. As we seek the optimal after being snapped into an alternate reality for over a year, let us start being intentional with our mental flexibility, setting goals for improving it, and taking a collective next step in human evolution, in this case emotionally. Find ways to stretch yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically because, as a wise person once said, “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape.”

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