Why Can't Some People Stop Fidgeting?

We all know someone who can't stop fidgeting. But is their habit actually helpful?

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Fidgeting is defined as "small movements, especially of the hands and feet, caused by nervousness or impatience." Often when people fidget, we blame it on having eaten too much sugar, drinking too much coffee, or watching too much T.V. But fidgeting isn't a product of our modern era. In fact, it seems to be a part of human nature and play play a part in learning for some. Science has another explanation for fidgeting and it has nothing to do with nervousness, impatience, or drinking too much Red Bull. It's a method of keeping the brain active and focused. When people are under a lot of stress, we don't pay as close attention to our surroundings and we don't learn as much. Cognitive Load Theory basically says that if too much is going on, the brain can't focus. To offload some of that stress, the brain might trigger our fidgeting behaviors. Since lower stress is associated with better learning and memory performance, fidgeting could, in theory, help us learn.

For reasons unknown to scientists, men fidget twice as much as women do. A 2005 study from the University of Hertfordshire found fidgeting reduces levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. A study in the journal PLoS ONE, however, found that fidgeting only reduces stress in men. They administered a series of cognitive tests on fidgeting men and women. The men performed better and had lower stress, but female test subjects did not do either. Another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, assessed the memory of young boys who fidget and its relationship to ADHD. When ADHD kids were put in a swivel chair and allowed to spin, they performed better on memory tests. However, kids without ADHD performed worse when they were allowed to spin, and better when they stayed still. So maybe boys with ADHD need to fidget in order to learn better?

Fidgeting seems to be an indication that our brain is trying to keep us on task. It can be irksome to people around those who fidget, but otherwise it's not bad (some studies found it actually burns a lot of calories!) Do you fidget? Do you find that it helps you focus? Do you get driven crazy by friends who fidget? Let us know in comments down below.

Learn More:

Vindication For Fidgeters: Movement May Help Students With ADHD Concentrate (NPR)
"When I tell a kid, 'Sit down, don't move, stop tapping, stop bouncing,' the kids are spending all their mental energy concentrating on that rule. And that doesn't allow them to concentrate on what we're asking them to do, which is their homework."

Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering (NIH)
"The relationship we have shown between fidgeting and retention suggest that fidgeting may be an effective indicator of times when interventions (e.g., rest break or a change in lecture pacing) may be of particular benefit to educational outcomes."