The Science of Fidgeting

In one of my previous posts I discussed how we can learn a lot about INFPs through ADD and ADHD. During the section on hyperactivity, I said that I feel the need to be doing something all the time. If I’m doing school, I need to listen to music. If I’m sitting in class, I’m usually fidgeting via shaking the leg, tapping my fingers, crossing one leg, tapping my foot, changing my position every 5 minutes, etc.

My parents especially have tried to prevent such behavior, telling me to sit still like a 5 year old (and for good reason because yes, I do fidget as much as a bored 5 year old).

I mentioned that because introverts are stimulated easily, listening to music while doing some other activity or, again, fidgeting, keeps me busy and aware. I just need something, anything to do to keep my busy.

So why do people fidget?

Back in 2005, a study reported on by the BBC explored the learning implications of six to eight year old’s who were forced to sit still in class (as most kids are) vs. children of the same ages who could move their hands and be more “free”. The researchers found that the children were able to find the answer to a question more often and easily if the children could move and fidget. Gesturing and fidgeting is vital to learning, the researchers discovered, despite most teacher’s commands to sit still.

The researchers theorized that such cognitive behavior could be because something called the “cognitive load hypothesis”.

“When we have to deal with complex thoughts or problems we offload some of the cognitive load into movement, thus freeing up resources to devote to the mental process.” researcher Pine reported to the Huffington Post.

Basically, movement might help “warm up” the brain. As fidgeting and movement require some cognitive, mental work, the brain is already moving and working and once a complex problem is being focused on. Even though not all of the focus is on the problem, not all of the cognitive load is purely in one part of the brain.

In children with ADHD, often the H, or Hyperactivity, part of the disorder is the salient symptom parents and teachers recognize. Because Attention-Deficit is right before Hyperactivity, and because of presupposed stereotypes of attention, many of us feel that when a child can’t sit still, they aren’t paying attention. They want to be off doing something else, so fidgeting is a visible form of a lack of attention.

While this may be true in some kids, we can’t attach stereotypes to everyone, especially those with emotional and cognitive abilities we still have yet to unfold.

New York Times also explored the benefits of fidgeting, except this time, they explored benefits of hyperactivity in children diagnosed with ADHD. Some studies in the past delved into how physical activity can aid children academically who have ADHD, however, such studies were biased towards the possible means of redirecting hyperactivity into a another outlet instead of distracted fidgeting during class.

Researchers attached an unobtrusive activity monitor to an ankle on 26 children each with a confirmed diagnosis of ADHD, and then another monitor on 18 other children’s ankles without the disorder. Then, the children had to complete a computer task testing attention and cognitive control. The task consisted of correctly identifying which direction an arrow pointed on screen by clicking the correct arrow key as quickly as possible. This arrow was surrounded by several other, distracting arrows sometimes in the same direction as the central arrow and sometimes not.

They found that the children with ADHD were more accurate the more intensely they bobbed their legs and shook them. When these kids were still, their responses were more likely to be wrong.

However, kids without the disorder barely fidgeted and so fidgeting played no discernible role in the accuracy of the answers they chose.

At least in those children with ADHD, the researchers hypothesized that hyperactivity helps “them cope with with their inability to pay attention…the physical restlessness helps them sharpen their mental focus.”

There is… a lot of research that has gone into the implications of stress-coping and fidgeting.

There’s evidence that fidgeters have faster metabolisms, and in a study done by Mayo Clinic on both thin and overweight people who sit most of the day (perhaps for their jobs), those that constantly fidget lost 350 calories in a single day.

Many people in the office life are forced to sit down, and it helps to have something to occupy the hands. Some people might consider someone who can sit still at a desk for 8 hours to be focused, however, those that seem distracted either by playing with a stress toy (playing with a pen or any other mindless object) or by fidgeting, just like the children with ADHD, are more focused.

It’s been shown that information is remembered more easily when people take notes vs. typing on a computer. Doodling seemed to boost memory as well, and the author of the study “hypothesized that doodling might help keep people from daydreaming during a boring task.”

“Fidget widgets”, those objects or stress toys people play with while thinking of other, more “mindful” things, keep people’s minds from wandering. However, mindless distractions are not, for instance, an iPhone game people might take a break from work from. A stress toy or fidgeting habit is used “for the enjoyment of the experience itself”, not in order to achieve any goal. Twirling a pen, shaking a knee, tapping fingers, squeezing a stress ball; all of those are things to keep the mind and body busy and more at focus. Anything else will distract.

Authors of the book, Fidget to Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies for Living With ADD, say this about fidgeting: “If something we are engaged in is not interesting enough to sustain our focus, the additional sensory-motor input that is mildly stimulating, interesting, or entertaining allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating.”

Fidgeting allows one section of the brain to focus attention elsewhere, so that the other section of the brain can focus on something that matters, something more mindful. This way, the entire brain isn’t bored.

So, really, there are a lot of benefits to fidgeting. People and children learn better when they can move around. Children with ADHD can focus their attention more precisely when they are hyperactive. You lose weight when you are a frequent fidgeter. Fidgeting gives many people, especially office workers, something to do. It can help cope with stress. Free cognitive loads in order focus better. Allow our minds to pay more attention to boring subjects as long as part of our mind is focused on a mindless, fidgeting task. People remember more when they’re more physically active in a dull situation, like when taking notes in meeting or just doodling.

So it’s perfectly okay to be a fidgeter. Many of the studies I’ve referenced say that fidgeting leads to better, healthier mental and physical states.

My need, or our need, in referencing to all INFPs and any other fidgeters out there, to do something else while working on something important, like bouncing a leg in class, taking notes during a lecture, listening to music while doing homework, cracking knuckles, tapping fingers, shaking a knee, twirling a pen, squeezing a stress ball, playing with a “fidget widget”, changing position while sitting, doodling… our need to do these things is justified and easily explained.

Fidgeting is a good thing, and everyone should do it, really. (Would you guys have stopped doing it anyways?)




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