A host of fidget gadgets, designed to help people focus, have suddenly caught on in cities. Some are discussing their hidden benefits, while others dismiss them as “distracting toys", or a marketing ploy. We asked some experts to weigh in on the issue.

Fidgeting deciphered

“Fidgeting can be defined as making small repeated movements, especially of the hands and feet, through nervousness or excitement. It is a very common ‘semi-voluntary’ movement witnessed in many normal people. Anything from a little wriggle, restlessness, squirm, jiggle, twist or shuffle, shaking of legs or tapping the feet qualifies as fidgeting," explains Amit Srivastava, senior consultant, neurology, at the PSRI Hospital in Delhi. It can be observed in some medical conditions like hyperthyroidism, mental retardation and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also.

Fidgeting is a complex phenomenon and neuroscientists have not arrived at a definitive conclusion on the cause and effects yet. “Some theories do mention that fidgeting stimulates the neurotransmitters in the brain, improves focus by putting away our distractions, and thus helps us concentrate on the one important thing that we are doing," says Dr Srivastava.

Rise of the spinner

Whatever the possible medical benefits, fidget spinners and their variants (like a fidget pen called Think Ink, which combines a titanium pen exterior with a number of tactile elements) are selling in good numbers. “Many of my clients, especially young ones in the age group of 9-15, have carried it to my clinic and say that it helps them to concentrate," says Shubha Madhusudhan, clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru.

Dr Srivastava says he sees it being used by both children and adults—apparently, it helps them cope with increasing stress (mostly mental work sans physical activity) and allay their anxiety.

Popularity, of course, does not establish their curative role. “I find that fidgeters are under pressure to work on their restlessness, and now they have a fancy gadget to fiddle with. They have a smile on their face because the fingers have something to manipulate with, so it works for some people,"says Dr Madhusudhan.

Manufacturers are even marketing these products as brain boosters for people affected by autism and ADHD. Dr Srivastava, however, says this is not yet backed by scientific evidence. “So with no tangible evidence to back such claims, I personally don’t recommend the use of fidget spinners in clinical practice. In fact, most schools in the US have now banned the use of fidget spinners as it has become more of a nuisance," he adds.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Other options

Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine and author of The Relaxation Response, writes that repetitive action, especially of needlework, can induce a relaxed state like that associated with meditation and yoga. “Once you get beyond the initial learning curve, knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol," says Dr Madhusudhan, adding that knitting is especially effective as two-handed repetitive movements paired with tactile, visual and emotional stimulation. She explains that craft activities like knitting are known to promote the development of neural pathways in the brain that help to maintain cognitive health.

While she has nothing against fidget spinners, she prefers to prescribe craft therapy like Madhubani painting, mandala art and pot painting in the therapeutic process. “I pick up easy-to-make kits and kids and adults alike are happy to complete them and get back what they have created to the clinic. It always helps," she says.

In fact, even though studies haven’t been conducted on this, sorting activities such as picking out “methi (fenugreek), mint or coriander leaves from the stem too can help in concentration and act as stress relievers," says Dr Madhusudhan.

Fidget spinners? The jury is still out on them.

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