Fidgeting is good

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Mechanism of fidgeting

The origins of fidgeting have not fully been elucidated, however, I believe that fidgeting can easily be explained by its association with creativity. The brain enters a creative mode upon any form of inspiration. In the creative mode, disruptive random signaling in the brain increases. This comes from the activation of the search mode in which the brain looks for new associations in problem solving. An important property of that search mode is its randomness. The stochastic search in the concept network requires a more permissive and more random form of spreading activation. Individual concepts may increase the probability of activating nearby concepts even when links between concepts are week or absent. A weak link is a link with low valence, while an absent link may have a form of a silent synapse. In this random search mode, some signaling may leak to the motor system and cause random muscle twitches. One of the simplest way to suppress unwelcome twitches is to activate a synchronous motor program that automatically suppresses movements that do not fit the program. This is fidgeting. In a similar manner, random signaling of the REM sleep is resolved by cutting off motor signals sent from the sleeping brain.

Importance of fidgeting

The hypothetical mechanism of fidgeting suggests it plays an important role in the healthy function of the brain.

Fidgeting plays an important neurophysiological role and should not be suppressed

Children at school are often rebuked for fidgeting. In contrast, Montessori schools allow of walking around in class. The freedom to fidget has a significant impact on how kids perceive school. For a little child, boring class can easily be survived as long as fidgeting is used as a defense weapon.

Due to its association with creativity, fidgeting may indicate working memory overload, cognitive dissonance, boredom, impatience, excitement, stress, and more. In any case, limiting fidgeting will not improve the focus and may make things worse. Fidgeting is normal and has little to do with ADHD. ADHD kids will fidget more, but so will creative kids, or kids with a rage to master (in a class remote from their "rage").

A simple way to harness fidgeting in the wake of the creative process is exercise (e.g. walking). One of the best ways of brainstorming is walktalking. SuperMemo World was born using this form of brainstorming.

Suppressed fidgeting

Fidgeting is undoubtedly associated with a conflict between control systems in the brain. In addition to creative fidgeting, we may observe fidgeting in other control conflict situations (e.g. in an attempt to suppress urination). Fidgeting should never be suppressed. If a conflict can be resolved (e.g. by a visit to a toilet), it should be resolved. If the conflict stems from creativity, fidgeting should continue as it is the best conflict remedy.

Further reading



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru