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Mark Lazenbymark lazenby

Whether it's in a boardroom, a community group or a classroom, it's hard not to take offence when the people you're talking to are squirming, doodling, shaking their feet or tapping their fingers. Is it too much to expect them to sit still, or at least pretend to be interested in what you have to say?

It might soothe your ego to learn that fidgeting may actually be helping your audience take in and remember your message. Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that engaging in what seems like needless movement may act to boost physiological arousal and alertness.

The link between such motor movements and changes in levels of alertness may reflect connections between basal ganglia regions near the centre of the brain involved in motor control and the reticular activating system – a collection of neural circuits projecting from the brain stem that is critical for controlling sleep-wake transitions.

You can't pay attention if you're drowsy or under-stimulated, so fidgeting in such situations may ultimately help to increase overall levels of attentiveness. The need to offset low levels of cortical arousal may explain why individuals with attention disorders tend to fidget and squirm so much. Rather than reflecting failures of self-control, these movements instead provide a way of reducing inattentiveness. And better attention typically results in better memory and other cognitive abilities. Recent research has found that fidgeting improves working memory performance in children both with and without an attention disorder.

Doodling has likewise been shown to enhance our ability to track and remember key aspects of otherwise highly tedious tasks. It seems the slight distraction provided by the random swirls and shapes we draw occupies the brain's cognitive-control mechanisms that help us seek engaging activities and try to steer us away from situations that are not rewarding. But the doodling itself does not require a lot of the brain's processing resources, allowing us to take in and encode whatever else is going on without interference from these "I'm bored and need to do something else" mechanisms.

The benefits of fidgeting and doodling are related to other findings that suggest focusing too hard on a task can be detrimental. Engaging the brain regions that support focused attention and cognitive control can result in the suppression of signals from other areas of the brain that are deemed irrelevant to the task at hand.

However, the contribution from these other regions can sometimes be quite helpful. Consider trying to find your blue hatchback in a parking lot full of cars. During a difficult visual search such as this, we can be more efficient at finding our target if, rather than actively trying our hardest and exerting maximum cognitive effort, we instead relax and – through a more passive approach – "let the target come to us."

The typical effect of "trying your hardest" – in this case, focusing and moving your attention from a single spot in the lot to another – inhibits the processing of information from other locations. A more passive approach seems to relax the reins of control, allowing information from other areas, including the target location, to more readily guide where we look.

In the end, the outward appearances of attentive behaviour – sitting still, eyes and ears focused – may not always be the best indicator of a brain doing optimal work.

Thinking of spontaneous movement as a tool to fine-tune one's neural circuits may help us deal with the hand-wringers and knee-bouncers we encounter. And maybe stop us from feeling so bad when we do it.

Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Guelph.

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