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Fidgeting into Focus

Close-up Of Businesswoman Holding Stress Ball In Hand.

I was never one for fidget toys. Stress balls from college fairs always ended up in my trash bin, and fidget spinners never appealed to me. But when Zoom meetings and virtual classes became the norm due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I struggled to maintain focus. To stay on task and resist the temptation to check emails, online shop or scroll through Twitter, I turned to an unlikely source: Play-Doh.

According to the Harvard Business Review, when you tune into a meeting remotely, “you might feel less motivated to listen and participate. The less you feel needed, the more distracted you will become, and the less you will give to the meeting.” Combined with the temptation to complete other tasks on your computer, it’s no wonder that pandemic-friendly work can wreak havoc on the attention span. But I have found that the mindless action of smushing Play-Doh or twisting a hair tie safely out of the view of my webcam actually helps me focus and stay engaged. This left me wondering if the grounding effect of my fidgeting was all in my head or based in science.

In Scientific American, Katherine Isbister compares the benefit of the tactile stimulation of a toy, paper clip or rubber band to that of music or a busy coffee shop while you work. “People often seek to adjust their experiences and their environments so that they provide just the right level of stimulation,” she wrote. You might find white noise or pacing helpful when you’re brainstorming. In a meeting or class where that is not an option, Play-Doh, or any item that keeps your hands busy without distracting your eyes, can have a similar effect.

Fidget toys have long been a popular therapeutic intervention for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It has been hypothesized that increased movement in ADHD is a way to compensate for decreased alertness. Thus, providing motor stimulation with a fidget toy can aid attention. In addition, fidget items have gained traction for other patient groups, with one literature review finding 30 out of 55 studies showed significant clinical benefits of sensory interventions for seniors with dementia. In this population, the sensory stimulation is believed to calm patients and similarly increase attention.

But Jason Fischer, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, warns that most studies show no significant effect of fidget toys on focus, and those that do often assume causation without the evidence to back it up. He agrees with studies like those mentioned above that conclude the effects of fidgeting on attention are indirect.

“The bottom line is that there is no reliable scientific evidence that fidget tools like stress balls, magnets and fidget spinners help with maintaining concentration,” Fischer said. “The science so far suggests that in cases where fidget toys do help students stay on task, the benefit may not be in focusing attention per se, but rather in things like reducing anxiety.”

In fact, Fischer, whose lab studies dynamic cognition and perception, argues that fidget items can become distracting. He favors goal-directed behaviors like reaching and pointing that direct attention toward the object or task at hand, rather than fidgeting movement that draws attention to the toys themselves. On Zoom, this might look like pointing toward a slide being discussed by the professor or making a subtle reach toward the computer screen.

So, what to make of my experience with Play-Doh, or the anecdotal evidence of classmates who have relied on fidget tools to survive distanced learning? Fischer is not discounting them completely. “Those observations help motivate scientific studies, and part of the art of education is to find what works for individual students.”

Next time you’re tempted to online shop mid-Zoom session, consider occupying your hands in order to free your mind. As for me, I might be trading out my Play-Doh for some goal-directed movements.

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1 thought on “Fidgeting into Focus”

  1. Cognitive research suggests that fidgeting is associated with how stimulated we are. ... Fidgeting could provide physiological stimulation to bring our attention and energy to a level that allows our minds to better focus on the task at hand.

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