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This is slightly left-field, but I am interested in the Cognitive Science implications of this question: Many people, myself included, are "leg jigglers", meaning we often sit jiggling or bouncing a leg - usually to the irritation of those around us.

The evidence that I have seen is that:

  1. it is not related to Parkinson's
  2. it is semi-involuntary - I can stop, but I do not consciously do it, and the speed of the jiggle is not something I am controlling
  3. it might be correlated to performance in tests
  4. and it is related to ADHD.

In my experience, it does seem to help my concentration. but I don't know if this is biological or cognitive - that is, a physical help, or an outlet of my consciousness while I am focusing on something. I would like to know if anyone has any scientifically valid evidence for relating cognitive focus to leg jiggling?

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I'd love to know the answer to this as well! jiggles leg... –  Josh Gitlin Feb 2 '12 at 15:06
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Care to provide links to the evidence you have already seen? –  Steven Jeuris Feb 2 '12 at 15:10
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Mainly anecdotally gathered - I have not found anything with scientific credibility, but this: boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=514289 is where I got a number of these from. There are other suggestions in there like a version of tourettes, but I wanted to focus on the cognative rather than medical issues. And thank you @Josh for tidying my question up! –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 2 '12 at 16:04
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Fidgeting has been found to be a focus aid, I'll try and find some articles –  Ben Brocka Feb 2 '12 at 17:23
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Obligatory xkcd –  Thomas Shields May 18 '12 at 14:46
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1 Answer

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I've also observed this behaviour in friends, and was curious to see what research has been done on the topic. Here's what I found (summary at the end).

Sechrest and Flores (1971) study of leg-jiggling

Sechrest and Flores (1971) performed an observational study of the prevalence of leg-jiggling

leg jiggling was defined as a vertical, rhythmic movement of one or both legs while the subject was in a seated position

Their findings, albeit based on varying-quality data were that:

  • leg jiggling is more common in the Philippines than in the United States
  • individual differences exist in prevalence of leg jiggling
  • people may jiggle their legs more when alone than in company
  • leg jiggling appears to be more prevalent in males than in females
  • leg jiggling is facilitated by type of sitting position. Specifically, legs uncrossed makes leg jiggling a lot easier and more likely.

They tentatively concluded that leg jiggling is a symptom of tension and classified it as a nervous mannerism. They also suggested, given cultural differences, that it may be acquired through imitation of others.

Leg jiggling as communication

Smith and Naryan (2008), in their conference abstract, discuss features of leg jiggling and conclude that:

while so far we can only speculate about the causal and functional properties of jiggles, they are clearly substantially rule-governed, sensitive to both formal and semantic aspects of ongoing discourse, widespread - both patterns were observed in all discourse contexts, and both languages - and deserving of further attention.

Restless leg syndrome

There is a disorder called restless leg syndrome. From the description the leg movement is voluntary but the desire to move the leg sounds much stronger than what we are talking about with normal leg jiggling.

Fidgeting

Mehrabian and Friedman (1986) did a general study of fidgeting where leg jiggling was classified with a wide range of other fidgeting behaviours. Fidgeting was defined as:

engaging in manipulations of one's own body parts or other objects, such actions being peripheral or nonessential to central ongoing events or tasks

They developed a self-reported fidgeting scale and proceeded to correlate the scale with a range of other measures. Given the composite nature of the scale, it is difficult to say what correlates leg jiggling specifically has with other measures. And even if such correlations were known, it would only say something about what types of people jiggle their legs rather than the effect leg jiggling has for those that do jiggle.

Student concentration

Appleton (1969) in a study of student concentration suggests

Individual styles and habits reveal personal means of coping with the profound isolation of the concentrating state. Leg jiggling, for example, may be an outlet for sexual tension or a method of exercise and movement. Many students find the physical inactivity demanded by heavy work loads to be extremely difficult to bear.

Summary of links between leg jiggling and focus

So, in relation to your specific question on leg jiggling facilitating focus, the research that I've found is fairly limited. Researchers have noticed that leg jiggling is used by students when studying in order to deal with the otherwise, long periods of no movement. This is consistent with my own thoughts that it might be related to a general desire to increase circulation. Several researchers have also posited that leg jiggling may be a way of dealing with stress, which arguably might assist with concentration. But ultimately, it looks like more research is needed on this topic, particularly experimental evidence on the effects of leg jiggling.

References

  • Appleton, W. S. (1969). The struggle to concentrate. Amer. J. Psychiat, 126, 256. FREE PDF
  • Mehrabian, A. and Friedman, S. (1986). An analysis of fidgeting and associated individual differences. Journal of Personality, 54(2):406-429.
  • Sechrest, L. and Flores, L. (1971). The occurrence of a nervous mannerism in two cultures. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Asian Studies, 1, 55-63. FREE PDF
  • Smith, N. J. & Narayan, S. (2008). Fidgeting is Not Random: Rhythmic Leg Motion, Speech, and Gesture.9th Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, & Language (CSDL9) LINK
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1  
Thank you - wonderful answer. And it highlights the challenge that if it is for exercise, circulation, movement, sexual tension or whatever, this MAY thereby help focus. Or not. As you say, more needs to be done on this. –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 3 '12 at 9:54
    
Would you classify rhythmic two-legged leg-jiggling under the same category? I would suspect that has a more musical influence. Also, is there a corresponding leg-jiggling speed across subjects? What is the average leg-jiggling frequency. :) –  Steven Jeuris Feb 3 '12 at 11:16
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@StevenJeuris perhaps, given the view count for this question, we should initiate a series of follow-up questions exploring the science of leg jiggling :-) –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 3 '12 at 11:53
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@JeromyAnglim We would need a proper Jigglologist to help there, I think ;) –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 3 '12 at 15:44
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