Playing with a geometric puzzle or stress ball at your desk can seem like an idle diversion. It may also spark clearer or more creative thinking.
Certain kinds of hand movements have an impact on cognitive functioning, improving focus or sparking fresh thinking or faster learning, according to several recent studies. Researchers at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering are exploring how fiddling with desk gadgets might yield some of those benefits on the job.
The research holds clues to how people who feel restless or confined by computer work might find the physical stimulation and stress release they need in behavior that they would have been scolded for in an elementary school—fidgeting.
Researchers at NYU are studying how 40 workers use various gadgets, from infant chew toys to Slinkys, gobs of adhesive putty and ballpoint pens, to help focus, ease anxiety and jump-start creative thinking says Michael Karlesky, a doctoral student at NYU’s engineering school. He is conducting the study with his adviser, Katherine Isbister, research director of NYU’s Game Innovation Lab and author of two books on computer game design and research.
Software developer Andrew Jarratt plays with a magnetic rolling-wheel toy when he needs to solve programming problems. He flips the device, a narrow U-shaped wire track, back and forth, tapping centrifugal force to send a wheel spinning rapidly along the track. Watching the wheel takes his mind off his frustrations and “provides the mental clarity I need to solve creative problems,” says Mr. Jarratt, of Chicago.
Mitchel Diemer, a Florence, Kan., pastor who also is participating in the study, says fiddling with a pen as he works “keeps the wheels turning in my mind. If I keep my hand moving, I tend to be more focused.” Mr. Diemer often works his pen so hard that he breaks the clip.
The NYU study is grounded in an evolving field of research called “embodied cognition,” or how physical movement and the environment may shape cognitive functioning. Some studies show fidgeting may also be a coping mechanism for restless energy, stimulating the brain enough so a person can focus on mundane tasks.
Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found in three studies of 327 students published last year in Psychological Science that students who take lecture notes in longhand, rather than on a laptop, process the material more deeply and give better answers to conceptual questions.
A 2011 study of 22 people published in Frontiers in Psychology found that counting on one’s fingers improves performance on a mental arithmetic problem in adults. Earlier research found the same benefits for children.
And children who play often with blocks and puzzles perform better on tests of spatial reasoning, or the ability to manipulate objects in space, according to an analysis of test scores and parent survey responses for 847 children published recently in Psychological Science.
“The hand can operate as a director of consciousness—a tool or agent for the mind in achieving a mental state in which people will be able to get the outcome they want,” says Frank R. Wilson, a neurologist, lecturer and author of a book about on how the interplay between the hand and the mind cultivates intelligence.
Manipulating a smooth stone or a string of beads that are pleasing or soothing to touch can evoke “the timeless, ancient human practice of meditative ritual” and screen out extraneous stimuli, Dr. Wilson says. Holding objects that spark pleasant thoughts can ease tension or build confidence.
Toys for fidgeting can get pricey. Small indoor sandboxes are Brookstone’s best-selling desk toy at the moment. A polished-walnut Executive Såndbox filled with an easy-to-handle blend of sand and 2% polymer sells for $44.98. “Part of a good desk toy is the ‘wow factor’ ” that draws people to your desk and starts conversations, says David Figler, who heads merchandising for toys, games and wellness for Brookstone Inc., a Merrimack, N.H., retailer.
For the NYU study, Mr. Karlesky and his team are using social media and other methods to invite people to post photos and videos of the toys they use at work, with descriptions of their benefits at fidgetwidgets.tumblr.com. The researchers plan to classify the objects based on the stimuli they provide in a kind of taxonomy of fidgeting behaviors, with a possible goal of creating small, programmable play objects to meet individuals’ needs, Dr. Isbister says.
Participants in the study often say they reap practical benefits from clicking, stretching, twirling, flipping, squeezing, stroking or fiddling with everyday objects.
“Being able to squish something really hard or knock it on the table” can ease mental and physical strain, Dr. Isbister says. These behaviors also may help people break through feelings of being stuck, bored, confused, distracted or restless.
Brigid Walsh, a Brooklyn, N.Y., educational program coordinator, likes fiddling with a metal door latch she bought for an educational toy-building project last year. The clicking sensation and sound keep her calm when conference calls go on too long, she says. To vent frustration, she slams the latch hard, “like I’m desperately ringing in to answer a ‘Jeopardy’ question,” she says. “I keep it under the desk so it’s not too loud.”
Many of the gadgets in the study inspire vigorous activity, Mr. Karlesky says, and participants describe them using words like “squishy or poky or springy, with lots of “eeeeee’s at the end,” he says.
Abbey Hambright, a customer-service and social-media specialist in Chicago, says stretching and bending a Slinky helps her resist multitasking and sending an email during conference calls. Her thoughts race faster than the spoken phone conversations, she says, and playing with the Slinky “helps me calm back down to talking speed” and listen closely.
Chrystanyaa Brown likes playing with a rubber penguin. The toy feels smooth and cool in her hand, she says. “When you squeeze him, his googly eyes pop out,” she says.
Ms. Brown squeezed him a lot recently while reading some dull books for her job as a lab manager. “It makes whatever you’re doing a little bit better,” says Ms. Brown, of New York.
Sue Shellenbarger, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote this article discussing the findings of New York University researchers that studied how manipulating everyday objects could spark new ideas in the workplace. Such a great article!