Researchers at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering are boiling your desk toys down to a science. Several recent studies conducted by the school have concluded that playing with objects or fiddling around with accessories may promote creativity and brain function.
Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted their work:
“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 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.”