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Are fidget toys legitimately good for your brain, or pseudoscientific snake oil?

Why it matters to you

From helping us focus to maybe even burning calories, it turns out that fidgeting -- and toys like the Fidget Cube -- are here to help.

“Fidget” isn’t exactly a word with the most positive of connotations. For many of us, it recalls veiled childhood threats of “stop fidgeting or,” and then the promised removal of something we value more highly than fidgeting. Type “stop” into Google’s search box and “stop fidget” is one of the first recommendations its autocomplete feature presents you with.

But fidgeting, like beloved 1990s TV properties, is making a comeback.

Last year, the creators of Fidget Cube — a Kickstarter desk toy allowing users to click, roll, flip, glide, spin and assorted fidgety verbs — set out to raise $15,000 to make their product a reality. They wound up raking in $6,465,690 from 154,926 backers.

More: Addicted to fidgeting? This versatile desk toy is everything you’ve dreamed of

Fidget Cube has inevitably been followed by a number of other crowdfunding campaigns designed to appeal to the twitchy fingers of those who supported it. One was a fidget pen called Think Ink, which combines a titanium pen exterior with a number of tactile elements for distracted fingers to play with. It made more than quadruple its funding target.

Is the idea that a distracting toy can actually help us just a pseudoscientific marketing ploy?

“I made this for my daughter,” co-founder Kent Lyon told Digital Trends. “She had just started a new job, which she nervous about, and started noticing that she was fidgeting a whole lot. Whether it was clicking her pen or playing with her hair, she found that she couldn’t stop doing something with her hands.” Lyon gave Think Ink the subtitle “Fidget to focus.”

But is this really a thing — or is the idea that a distracting toy can actually help us just a pseudoscientific marketing ploy?

“I think fidgeting is a great way to put away our distractions and concentrate on the one important thing that we are doing,” Kristoph Krisjans, creator of a new gravity-defying fidget toy called Moondrop, told Digital Trends. “I actually never saw anyone that couldn’t do their job because of fidgeting. Exactly the opposite: when I see someone fidgeting, most of the time they are deeply focusing on a process, so I tend to believe that fidgeting helps people to keep their attention.”

It’s tempting to bust out the klaxons at the breaking news that a fidget toy purveyor thinks fidget toys increase productivity. However, it just may be correct.

Research has shown that even small repetitive activities can increase the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain in a way that increases our ability to focus and pay attention. Even if the fidget you are carrying out involves minimal concentration — fidgeting with a pen, chewing gum, or doodling on a piece of paper — this type of multitasking can positively impact the outcome of a particular task.

“We feel personally that fidgeting has been beneficial in our daily lives, such as when in meetings or while brainstorming,” Matthew and Mark McLachlan, the siblings behind Fidget Cube told Digital Trends. “Since launching our product, we’ve had discussions with an incredible amount of mental health professionals and researchers in the fields of psychology and neuroscience who are interested in using Fidget Cube in their research. We’re excited to see the data that’s collected on this topic.”

This is especially noticeable when dealing with children with ADHD, as Purdue University professor Sydney Zentall has noted in her work.

“Our research has demonstrated that incorporating active tasks with flash cards or response boards, peer tutoring, or cooperative groups and by allowing students to play with ‘toys’ during delays — [such as] fuzzy pipe cleaners, clay, small collapsible rulers — can be used to improve attention and performance,” Zentall told Digital Trends. “These toys function to create novelty or change for a child who has difficulty maintaining sufficient activation and may be considered easily bored.”

According to Zentall, while failure to stay on task can reduce work speed and production, there is no evidence that most “distractions” increase errors among children with ADHD. Surprisingly, she said, these kind of fidget distractions “may actually help the child perform in the classroom, especially when tasks are long and tedious. That is, off-task looking may provide ‘doses’ of environmental stimulation that the child needs.”

More: A gravity-defying fidget toy that leverages a fascinating quirk of physics

There is even evidence that fidgeting can have a positive impact on people’s physical health. Examinations regarding the physical benefits of fidgeting are relatively few and far between, but a 2008 study tracked daily movements for a group of slim and overweight women, and discovered that the slimmer group tended to fidget more. “If the obese women adopted the activity patterns of the lean women,” the authors of the study noted, they might burn an extra 300 calories per day.

Sure, you’re never going to match a five-mile run by playing with your Fidget Cube, but the findings suggest that every little bit helps.

Ultimately, we’re still still a long way from the makers of fidget-focused desk toys being able to make explicit medical claims for their devices — but it seems that there is real scientific evidence to suggest that fidgeting has an important role to play in our lives.

Or at least, that’s what we’ll tell our boss next time she catches us playing with our latest Kickstarter purchase instead of writing and publishing stories. We’ll report back on whether or not it works.