I cannot possibly recall all of the people who have turned to me and shouted, both playfully and angrily, to stop bouncing my “goddamn leg.” I was a super hyperactive child and when scolded for it, I largely just repressed and converted that manic energy into nervous energy.
My poor teachers… and family… and classmates… and girlfriends/partners. “Why?” was never really a question that popped up. “Do you have to?” was fairly common, but any time I answered “yes” was purely sarcastic rather than an expression of insight into the body’s physiological reasoning.
So why do we fidget? The short answer is stress and boredom, but that doesn’t really tell us anything new. The long answer, from Science Focus, sounds a little something like this:
Anxious fidgeting is an expression of an overabundance of energy caused by stress hormones that are prepping the body for a fight or flight response. Any first-year psych student will tell you all about how poorly the human body has adapted to modern life. Anxiety at its core is meant to be triggered by life-threatening scenarios like being attacked by lions or being caught in a natural disaster, but nowadays is more likely a response to an overdue class assignment or a full workload in a job that pays too little. Unfortunately, for our bodies, that means that the internal energy that comes about as a result of these less-deadly stressors has nowhere convenient or life-saving to go. As a result, we shift in our seats or balance back and forth between our feet.
Bored fidgeting is a lot less primal, but just as biological. Our brains are the most advanced, complex computers known to man, capable of running thirty-eight thousand trillion operations per second; in comparison, the most powerful supercomputer as of 2015 can “only” run seventy-six trillion operations (that’s only twelve zeros rather than fifteen). Because it’s used to being so active, in down times it’ll often find things for us to do to occupy the down time. Drumming your fingers, bouncing your leg, and playing with whatever is at hand are often symptoms of the bored supercomputers nestled between our ears.
Fidget toys allow us to release excess energy built up from stress in a way that doesn’t necessarily annoy everyone in the room (although the buttons that some fidget toys have click awfully loudly), or to occupy our mind with background processes that don’t interfere in our work. This is especially valuable for children with ADHD or various forms of autism, as it provides sensory input in a less distracting or destructive manner.
We’ve all seen the fidget spinner craze and the somewhat-less publicized fidget cube fascination, but until recently I’d avoided them entirely. This is partly because I’m chronically, oppositionally defiant, and partly because I enjoy being “that hipster” – but I’ve seen the light. Working at WonderLab has given me the opportunity to play with fidget toys without being judged by friends who know how hard I’ve worked to avoid them. I tried out one called “SwingOs” and to my surprise, I genuinely enjoyed it. When my hands are idle, my mind is racing. So long as my hands are occupied, my brain is relaxed enough to focus on what I want to focus on. Sold.
Samuel Zlotnick is 23 years old and is a self-described “scifi/fantasy geek”. He just began an internship at WonderLab in its Marketing/PR department which he feels will compliment his eventual Bachelor’s Degree in Professional & Technical Writing. He plans to add a few fidget toys from WonderLab’s gift shop to his writing desk, particularly the Kandama and SwingOs.