Fidgeting is something we’re often told not to do. The assumption is that if you are fidgeting, then you probably aren’t listening. It’s distracting for others and not only that, you might end up breaking something or making a mess (especially if you like chewing on pens…).
But perhaps we’ve given fidgeting an unfairly bad rap? New research seems to suggest this might be the case, at least.
When you are concentrating, you might be surprised to find that it’s quite common to fidget, even in adulthood. When working out a hard math sum for instance, we might tap a pen on the table. And while in an important call, we might twiddle the cord absent-mindedly.
Far from being a distraction though, new theories suggest that this may actually be a way for us to ‘distract’ the physical part of our brains. By doing something with our hands, we feel less antsy and frustrated and thus are better able to focus on our thoughts without feeling the need to ‘get up and do something’.
At the same time, it has also been suggested that fidgeting might actually help us to verbalize – seeing as the brain areas that we use for speaking are also used for movements. It appears that we are better at answering verbal questions when we are allowed to move!
And it seems that this is something that we inherently realize – after all, the main objective of executive ‘desk toys’ is to give busy business men and women something to fiddle with. It might just be that these toys can help to keep them focussed on what they’re doing and avoid trailing thoughts!
Fidgeting seems to be particularly useful for autistic children too. In one study it was found that when children with ADHD were given a complicated mental task to perform while sitting in a swivel chair, they actually performed better the more they moved (1)! The researchers concluded that the more the children moved, the more they increase their awareness!
This might be explained by one potential cause of ADHD – underarousal. Children with ADHD appear to produce less dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter that helps us focus and work toward goals. With lower levels of this chemical, children don’t seem to be able to focus on anything for very long and are constantly being distracted by ‘the next thing’.
It may well be that interacting with a physical object that is tactile and inherently rewarding can help to increase the production of dopamine and norepinephrine. And this might also have similar benefits for children and adults without ADHD.
There actually exist a number of toys designed specifically around this theory. ‘Fidget toys’ and ‘sensory toys’ are toys that children with ADHD can manipulate and play with in order to stay focussed and to channel some of their nervous energy.
Perhaps we all should find something to fidget with?