Why Do We Fidget?

We spend our entire lives hearing that we fidget because we don’t know how to control ourselves.  We learn to equate fidgeting with being undisciplined and even impolite.  Thank goodness for new research that shows us that fidgeting is not only normal but healthy!  So:  why do we fidget?

Fidgeting is actually a response to boredom or anxiety.  When our bodies have elevated levels of stress hormones, those hormones get us ready to react.  Back when we were cave men and women, those reaction hormones meant:  GET MOVING!  (You might have heard of “fight or flight,” which is the same thing.)  Only now, we don’t really have anywhere to run when we’re pinned to our desks, and we don’t even have anything “real” to run from.  We’re running from imagined beasts–like deadlines or personal conflicts.

Woolly Mammoth chasing a  caveman

What happens to all of that excess movement energy then?  It gets channeled into acts like biting fingernails or twiddling thumbs.  We all have a stress hormone called “cortisol,” and this stress hormone lowers when we fidget.  Because cortisol interferes with learning, fidgeting can increase our ability to learn and to focus.  In fact, studies have shown that fidgeting increases memory capacity for this exact reason.  

Some other studies have led to a theory called the “cognitive load” theory, which suggests that when we have complicated problems to solve or questions to to answer, we “offload” some of that mental work with some physical work that comes in the form of fidgeting.  That makes more mental space available for the thinking process.

Either way, we know nowadays that fidgeting is a response to some kind of flip-flopping that our mind is doing.  So when Jerry Lee Lewis said, “I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs, I’m really nervous but it sure is fun!” this is exactly what he was referring to.  He surely didn’t realize that he was onto something in 1957 that a lot of parents and psychologists wouldn’t understand until the beginning of the new millennium.

Goodness gracious GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!


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