This article by Jessica Hullinger found on Fast Company’s web site is so consistent with what we are finding in our educational environments about attention spans and why we fidget and use various items to help us focus. Once again, science is revelatory about what is going on in the brain while we are working.
What our brain reveals about why we fidget
Most of us do it, but fidgeting at work hasn’t been studied before. Now researchers are figuring out how it impacts our working day.
Paper clips, stress balls, clicking pens, rubber bands, magnets. Most of us mindlessly fidget with something while we ponder a project, listen to a lecture, or work through a problem, and two researchers from New York University want to know why.
“Is fidgeting actually part of our work?” asks Mike Karlesky, a PhD student at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering in the computer science program. “Is it some kind of essential behavior that is part and parcel to how we think, how we process?” In the search for answers, he and his advisor, Katherine Isbister, started a Tumblr called Fidget Widget where they ask fidgeters to come forward and submit pictures of their favorite “doohickeys.”
Floating attention is a safety feature that probably dates back to prehistoric times when the ability to focus 100% on a single task was not entirely desirable.
“What object(s) do you play with while you work?” the blog asks. “How do you fiddle with them in your hand? What are they made of? What do you enjoy about them and how they feel? Do they have special meaning to you? When do you play with them?”
They want to know: if fidgeting helps us work better, how can we use technology to maximize this effect?
Why Do We Fidget?
For something that so many of us do, the reasons why we fidget at work are surprisingly unstudied. We do know fidgeting is a common coping mechanism for people with ADD, but could it serve a similar purpose for the population as a whole? According to Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright, authors of Fidget To Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies For Living With ADHD: “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.”
In other words, the authors believe fidgeting distracts part of the brain that’s become bored so the other parts can pay attention to what we’re reading, hearing, or seeing. They say this “floating attention” could be an evolutionary trait that “dates back to prehistoric times when the ability to focus 100% on a single task was not entirely desirable and would result in a person missing the large ravenous beast hiding in the bushes.”
What Does Fidgeting Do For Our Productivity?
Research shows a correlation between working with our hands and increased memory and creativity. A recent study found that writing by hand rather than typing on a keyboard helps us better process and retain information. And mindless doodling can boost memory and attention span.
Kids who are allowed to fidget during class learn more quickly than those who are not.
One 2005 study concluded that kids who are allowed to fidget during class learn more quickly than those who are not. Karen Pine with the University of Hertfordshire says that “if teachers encouraged more fidgeting in class they might find children actually learn more.”
What Our Fidgeting Tools Say About Us
Initially, Karlesky worried that this project might be a waste of time. Asking people what they play with when they’re bored at work? Would anyone take this seriously? He realized immediately that he was wrong. People are very passionate about the things they fidget with. “They have really well-defined preferences for the experience in their hands,” he says. “They have made specific choices about particular objects they will carry with them.” While we have a variety of fidget preferences, Karlesky has noticed a few common themes in the blog submissions so far:
We like repetition
“It seems the mindlessness of these activities is somehow intimately connected to repetition,” Karlesky says. A few samples from the blog:
“These little rubber things on my headphones.”
“All day I do the same movements over and over again; make it into a chain of boxes or steps.”
“The Nitro Grinder thing. All day. Until someone tells me to stop. Click. Click. Click.”
“I repeatedly take the lid off and put it back on.”
We like squishy, sticky, and bouncy widgets.
From Silly Putty to sticky tack to Koosh balls. “There’s all these evocative words people try to use about squishiness and pokiness,” Karlesky says. Again, a few samples:
“It is filled with some type of liquid, cool and squishy to the touch and easily flips inside out through a whole (sic) in the middle. It keeps me mindlessly entertained for hours.”
“I fiddle with tape at my desk. I think it has something to do with the sticky texture and crinkly sound.”
“The Koosh ball gets pulled, thrown, and bounced.”
Our brains tell us so much
This article give us another representation of why we need to be aware of what is truly going on in our brains, as it is so relevant to what we do each day.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Education Network