Why Fidgeting?

How many times have you been told by your parents, teachers, friends, and partners to just stop fidgeting? Stop moving your legs, quit playing with your nails, sit straight, and so many other things that are all different variations of “For the love of God, stop fidgeting!”

These are some seriously difficult habits to get rid of. Why? Why won’t people listen when they are asked not to fidget? The answer is simple – because fidgeting is involuntary. We usually do it involuntarily without being aware of it ourselves.

The Origin Story

No, fidgeting is not a 21st-century invention. People have been fidgeting since as long as people have existed. But, the phenomenon was not observed and addressed until a psychologist by the name of Sir Francis Galton first noticed it during a lecture that he found boring. His keen eyes saw that most people in the lecture hall were swaying from one side to another, just fidgeting away. Interestingly, he found that the listeners would fidget less when they were intrigued by what the speaker was saying. He actually went back and wrote a paper titled ‘The Measure of Fidget’, which got published in the prestigious journal, Nature. In this paper, he observed that people fidget out of pure boredom. This was way back in 1885, when the concepts of hyperactivity, sugar rush, TV killing attention spans, and the likes did not exist.

The conclusion? Without the coffee, sugar, and technology, people were still fidgeting. So, fidgeting is an integral part of the human behaviour and not really a side-effect of any modern inventions.



What is fidgeting?

Now that we understand the origin of fidgeting, let’s delve into the technical definitions. Typically, small movements of hands, feet, or other body parts, caused by nervousness, and lack of patience are classified as fidgeting.

But, you know what science says? It actually calls fidgeting an activity that keeps the mind focused and the brain active.

Can you believe it? If you fidget more, this means that you are more focused. Who knew!
So, the next time you see someone constantly playing with his hair, or tapping her legs, you know that they are probably more focused on the task at hand, and not otherwise.


How does fidgeting sharpen focus?

The correlation between fidgeting and focus might have come as a surprise to you. So, let’s delve deeper.

Each of us has faced stressful situations of some kind in our lives. If you are a kid, you might be stressed about your grades, or how your friends see you. For an adult, well, almost everything that exists, exists to stress you out. If you observe with a bit of patience, whenever you are tensed, you are not able to concentrate on anything that you are doing. Let’s say you have to give a presentation to your boss today. You have been working on it for the past 2 months. You are not even able to sit and have your breakfast peacefully that day, let alone do something that requires your attention. It is a well-known fact that stress reduces your learning ability and adversely affects concentration.

The brain is your body’s CPU. You put too much load on it, it will just hang. So, what does the brain do? It takes some of that load off by triggering what we call fidgeting. The off-loading reduces the stress levels and you are able to focus better.

Does fidgeting depend on gender?

It might seem strange at first, but fidgeting does depend on whether you are a man or a woman. Men have been recorded to fidget twice as much as women. That’s right. Twice! A 2005 study has found that fidgeting actually reduces the levels of cortisol or the stress hormone in the body. But, the benefits of the lowered stress were apparent only in men, who showed better cognitive abilities and lesser stress levels, after they fidgeted.
Another study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women who fidgeted burned more calories and showed better health. In fact, other studies have quantified that fidgeting burns 144 calories in one day.


Is fidgeting an adaptive behaviour?

Some scientists have argued that fidgeting can actually be an adaptive response to the more sedentary lifestyle we are living today. But, going back to Galton’s paper, the fidgeting habits were still there when people had a more active lifestyle. So, it is not a very convincing theory.

Parting Thoughts

Fidgeting can be annoying to the people around you. But, at its core, it is a harmless activity that our animal brain has concocted in order to keep us focused on the important tasks. Fidgeting keeps the mind active and promotes learning. At the least, you are burning calories, which is never bad.


Featured in the Press

We maintain an up to date listing below of the best articles/posts we've found about spinners on the Web:

Fidgeting Has Benefits . Psychology Today.
Are fidget toys legitimately good for your brain, or pseudocientific snake oil? Digital Trends.
Fidgeting — It’s Not Just for Kids. Additude.
Fidgeting children 'learn more'. BBC News.

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