Your desk toys are making you smarter

New research sheds light on the benefits of 'embodied cognition'

Don't stop fidgeting.

An emerging body of research suggests that keeping your hands busy—with, say, a slinky or a stress ball—can improve cognitive performance and reduce stress, Sue Shellenbarger writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Brain-body connection

Scientists are studying the ways physical movement and your environment can influence your cognitive functioning in a new field called "embodied cognition."

WSJ: Finding mental wellness in the workplace

Frank Wilson, a neurologist and author of a book on the subject, says engaging with the physical world can be a powerful way to boost brain power. "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," he says.

For instance, in a series of studies published last year in Psychological Science, researchers from Princeton University and the University of California-Los Angeles examined how note-taking styles influenced cognition. According to the studies, students who took lecture notes by hand—rather than on a computer—retained more information and provided better answers to abstract questions.

Another recent study in Psychological Science found that children who often play with blocks have improved scores on tests of spatial reasoning.

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Psychologists are now taking their studies outside the classroom to see how common workplace distractions—such as desk toys—can improve mental performance.

How do you fidget?

Researchers at New York University's (NYU) Polytechnic School of Engineering are in the middle of an ongoing study into how 40 workers use desktop distractions, such as slinkys, pens, and stress balls, to give themselves a mental boost.

As part of the study, researchers invited workers to post images and videos of their desktop distractions—along with a description of how fidgeting makes them feel—to social media.

The goal is to get a sense for what types of movements provide what types of benefits, so researchers can design objects to meet specific needs.

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Katherine Isbister, research director of NYU's Game Innovation Lab and leader of the study, says it makes sense that tactile play can provide a mental release. "Being able to squish something really hard or knock it on the table" is a way to overcome negative emotions such as stress or boredom, she says.

Chrystanyaa Brown, a manager at the lab, agrees. She has her own desk toy: a rubber penguin. "When you squeeze him, his googly eyes pop out," she says, adding "It makes whatever you're doing a little bit better" (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 3/2).

The takeaway: New research suggests fidgeting—even if it is only twirling a pen—has cognitive benefits, such as increased focus and reduced stress.


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