Why Fidget Spinners Might Be Helpful for the Brain

May 15th 2017

If you’ve been on the Internet or talked to anyone about contemporary toy trends, you know that fidget spinners are quite popular.

These small toys are three-pronged plastic items that revolve around a central ball bearing. They're placed between the fingers and spun with a gentle push providing an inventive means to fidget. Similar toys like fidget cubes—small boxes with functionless buttons and dials—are attracting attention too.

Supposedly, the gadget was conceived with a benevolent purpose in mind. As its inventor, Catherine Hettinger told the Guardian, "There’s just a lot of circumstances in modern life when you’re boxed in, you’re cramped in, and we need this kind of thing to de-stress." And while some schools are banning the use of fidget spinners, Hettinger said that the toy is more than just a recreational distraction. “I know a special needs teacher who used it with autistic kids, and it really helped to calm them down,” she said. 

Are fidget spinners more than just a toy?

Research suggests that Hettinger might be right in advocating for the use of a fidget spinner for needs beyond just, well, fidgeting. The toys have been garnering attention for being beneficial in improving focus and physicalizing mental activities.

According to Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright, authors of the book Fidget To Focus, fidgeting is an act that can help to course correct someone who has difficulty connecting or focusing. As the authors told Fast Company, fidgeting provides the stimulation that “allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating.” Thus, a toy like a fidget spinner could provide an inventive solution for keeping minds engaged.

Movement helps the mind.

So while on one hand, fidgeting may dismissed as merely the byproduct of an issue like ADHD or hyperactivity, it is nevertheless a form of movement—and experts have reiterated the importance of movement as a means of helping the mind.

“[Fidgeting] is definitely one of the symptoms of ADHD,” James Swanson, Psychologist at the University Of California, Irvine, shared with ATTN:. “Certainly people fidget when they’re nervous or bored. It is a way of decreasing not psychiatric symptoms but some behaviors that are associated with environmental conditions that you find yourself in.”

As a 2015 study published in the journal “Child Neuropsychology” revealed, movement can be helpful: “children with ADHD use movement to self-regulate alertness” as it compensates for "underarousal" and "acts to improve cognitive performance.” 

Beyond movement, Swanson suggests that toys like fidget spinners qualify as a type of "play"; a stress reducing activity that allows a person to "zone out" while staying active.  This is notable since play has been known to curb stress while enabling better mental function.

For those hoping to maximize concentration, take fidgeting further: exercise.

In general, exercise is a boon for mental health and can be an aid for those who struggle with mental focus. But the jury is still out on whether or not fidgeting could serve as a sort of potential substitute for actual exercise

“There’s some accumulating evidence that exercise and movement is a good way to alleviate some of the symptoms of ADHD,” Swanson said. “Whether fidgeting will do this or not compared to exercise, where you are more active than fidgeting, is an open question.” Swanson noted that a more extensive study specifically on fidgeting still needs to be conducted.

Fidgeting is the sign of a body in need.

Fidgeting is the body's attempt to provide a solution for a problem. Beyond keeping the mind stimulated, fidgeting has been seen as a coping mechanism for prolonged sitting and a means to help people learn faster.

So the next time you see someone tapping their pen, shaking their leg or spinning a small plastic toy in their hands, consider reserving judgment; they may just be working through an internal problem by using a physical solution. 

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