The Meaning Of Fidgeting

Fidgeting has been part of human behavior for thousands of years. But what exactly is the meaning of fidgeting? Why do we do it? What are the psychological reasons for it? Does it serve any purpose? Is it bad for you? Or could it even be good for you? All of these questions and much more are answered in this article. And if you’re a “fidgeter,” or someone you know fidgets a lot (and it drives you crazy), you’ll definitely find this interesting.

1. It’s Good For You

Yep, you heard right. It turns out that fidgeting could actually have some pretty amazing health benefits. This totally dispels the notion that there’s something “wrong” with people who can’t sit still. Researchers from the Universities of Missouri and Texas Arlington have stumbled upon something incredible – a cure for the so-called “sitting disease.” That’s right, fidgeting can actually improve the health of your heart, something that is reduced by sitting for long periods of time. They say that too much sitting can shave years off your life – but apparently not if you’re sitting. Past research has shown that “fidgeters” can burn hundreds more calories than those of us that sit still!

2. Stress

Most of our communication is done non-verbally, and a good deal of this non-verbal communication is done through our hands. And it turns out that fidgeting fits neatly into this type of communication. Fidgeting can often reveal people’s stress levels. For example, people who rub their hands together unconsciously are trying to “self-pacify” themselves, massaging themselves to calm down. If people are really freaking out, they rub their hands in a motion called “teepee hands,” which involves rubbing your hands together with your fingers outstretched and interlaced.

3. Lying

Another element that is tied to fidgeting is lie detection. This probably seems obvious now that you think about it, but have you ever noticed how people who are lying tend to fidget a lot? That was what one professor Aldert Vrij confirmed in his study of non-verbal behaviors directly related to lying. He found that scratching of the head, face and wrist, leg and foot movements, shifting sitting positions, are all signs that someone is not telling the truth. So the meaning of fidgeting could be that the person is simply lying.

4. Daydreaming

When looking at someone and trying to figure out why they can’t sit still, don’t always assume the worst – they could just be daydreaming. One study from the University of Waterloo shows that fidgeting is quite common when it comes to boring tasks like listening to long lectures at Universities. But what is the meaning of fidgeting while bored? The researchers at Waterloo found that mind-wandering, or daydreaming, came with some very real costs. Usually, people are able to control their urges to fidget quite easily, but once they began to dip into deep mind-wandering, this control went right out the window, and they started fidgeting. So if you see someone fidgeting, they may very well be finding it hard to concentrate!

5. Focusing

I know what you’re thinking – how can the meaning of fidgeting be daydreaming if it’s also focusing? It all comes down to the root cause of fidgeting in both these situations – boredom. While it’s true that fidgeting can cause people to daydream when faced with a boring University lecture, it can also help people focus when they’re doing boring work. That’s because in the first example, the person is sitting and listening but not actually doing anything with their body. On the other hand, if they’re sitting and typing at their computer, doing something incredibly boring, fidgeting with their feet and legs might actually help them focus. This is because the added physical stimulus of movement can make the boring task more entertaining. This is the conclusion that researchers Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright came to in their study of ADD.

6. Mental Disorders

One of the most obvious meanings behind fidgeting is a symptom of a mental disorder. Disorders that could result in increased fidgeting commonly include ADD, ADHD, and OCD. For many children with ADD and ADHD, fidgeting functions as a displacement behavior, which is an activity that replaces other emotions, such as boredom, anger, or frustration. Although this is more pronounced in kids with ADD and ADHD, it’s a common trait among most people, who light cigarettes or chew gum to “blow off steam.” In OCD, the obsessive straightening of a tie of cleaning of a surface may indicate some underlying issue. Sometimes, the nature of the “fidget” can reveal what these people are stressed out about. For example, obsessively checking your phone for new notifications could mean you are afraid of being alone.

7. Learning

Another amazing thing researchers found out about the meaning of fidgeting was that it actually aids in memory. This amazing study was carried out in 2005 at the University of Hertfordshire. They came to the stunning conclusion that kids who were allowed to fidget actually learned faster that kids who were told by angry teachers to “Stop that damn fidgeting!” Children have a low attention span, and by fidgeting it helps them to keep entertained while the lesson is in progress. One of the lead researchers, Karen Pine, said that “If teachers encouraged more fidgeting in class they might find children actually learn more.” This study was backed up by many other similar studies since then.

8. Memory

Karen Pine also reported that fidgeting is heavily linked to memory. Interestingly, the children she studied were more likely to answer a questions asked by the teacher correctly if they were allowed to move their hands. This is because fidgeting is linked to that feeling you get when the answer is on “the tip of your tongue.” We’ve all been there. Sometimes waving your hands around really does help us remember that thing that’s buried deep in our memory. Interestingly, the same parts of the brain that are activated during movement and speech are also activated during fidgeting.

9. Attraction

Certain fidgets can actually mean people are attracted to you, so don’t be surprised if the meaning of fidgeting is actually that someone is interested! We all know that people can get nervous around people they’re romantically interested in, and as previously mentioned, fidgets can indicate stress and anxiety. But there’s actually more to it than that. The crossing and uncrossing of a woman’s legs, or a man running his fingers through his hair might seem like fidgets at first glance. But they’re actually unconscious messages humans send to another to show that they’re interested (or repulsed). There are countless little signs that fall into this category, all of which look like innocent “fidgets.” Further examples are men raising their eyebrows at women, and girls wiggling their toes around in open-toe heels while maintaining eye contact with a man.

10. It’s What Makes Us Human

Fidgeting is a very weird thing if you think about it, but then again, humans are actually pretty weird creatures. Mike Karlesky, a PhD student at NYU, decided to start a Tumblr page to gather all of the different ways people fidget. He found that people were actually quite passionate about fidgeting. How they fidgeted was strangely important to them. People chose very specific objects to play with in their hands. Some of these were seemingly mindless, such as the rubber pieces on the end of headphones. Others were more specific, such as a rock that reminded them of a loved one. But one thing is certain, fidgeting is not as meaningless as many people think, and it actually becomes somewhat of a repetitive, almost obsessive ritual that people become attached to.

Morishima T, Restrano RM, Walsh LK, Kanaley JA, Fadel PJ, Padilla J. Prolonged sitting-induced leg endothelial dysfunction is prevented by fidgeting. American J of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology. 1 July 2016;311(1):H177-H182.


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