If you want to be a rocket scientist, you might want to start chewing that stick of gum. At least, that’s the hypothesis of a growing body of research that suggests chewing bubble gum is correlated to the ability to concentrate on various mental tasks. And as every student knows (or at least should know) it’s not the amount of time you spend studying that matters – it’s the the amount of time you are actually learning. In short, the more you concentrate, the more you learn, the more you know. But what does the actual science say about this.
New Research on Gum Chewing
I remember learning as a child that chewing gum is actually good for your brain because the neural processes involved in chewing gum forces your brain to activate in ways that result in slightly more engagement, and therefore, concentration. Obviously that’s not how I was told about it… but that’s the gist of what I learnt. I never knew whether or not this was just a rumour, but I believed it.
It seems like what I learnt was true. New research from Cardiff University in Wales, UK, has found that chewing gum during an audio memory task improved concentration. The study involved a half-hour audio task that demanded the use of short-term memory, among groups of people who were randomly split into groups of those who were given gum to chew vs. those who did not chew gum.
The 38 participants all listened to a seemingly random list of single-digit numbers and their ability to detect a pattern of odd-even-odd numbers, such as “1-8-5.” Lead author Kate Morgan described the results like this:
Interestingly, participants who didn’t chew gum performed slightly better at the beginning of the task but were overtaken by the end. This suggests that chewing gum helps us focus on tasks that require continuous monitoring over a longer amount of time.
The Pro-Gum Debate
But that’s not the end of the story. I was surprised to learn that there’s actually a great deal of research on the topic of chewing gum and cognitive benefits/detriments. This study itself was an extension of an earlier study in 2002 which was, for the sake of clarity, let’s say “pro-gum.”
The auditory task described above is called the “Bakan Task” (named after Paul Bakan, from a paper he had published in 1959) and was considered by Morgan and her colleagues to be an improvement over other research methodologies. There were several studies which found the opposite effect – that chewing gum makes it harder to concentrate – but the improvement in methodology is notable. Put simply, alternatives (i.e., those with “anti-gum” results) tend to deal with more passive cognitive engagement, whereas the Bakan Task demands much more of an active vigilance from the participant.
Specifically, in the Bakan Task, participants need to maintain the order of a minimum of three digits, and keep updating that information, as well as quickly distinguishing between odd and even numbers in their heads, which is not a mental task you can do with mere passive engagement. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but it’s more realistic and analogous to the type of studying that students actually do than the more elementary tasks some earlier researchers have employed.
Therefore, while several studies have indeed been anti-gum, it seems as though the majority of research on this topic is pro-gum. The study concluded like this:
[That] chewing-gum can benefit some components of cognition is now well established (e.g., Wilkinson et al., 2002; Baker, Bezance, Zellaby, & Aggleton, 2004; Stephens & Tunney, 2011; Houcan & Li, 2007; and Miles, Charig, & Eva, 2008). This benefit has been interpreted as reflecting the action of increased neurological activity (Momose et al., 2002; Onozuka et al., 2011) and the fluctuations in nervous system activation via adrenal arousal (Smith, 2004) observed in gum-chewing participants.
In addition, that gum chewing increases blood flow to the frontal-temporal brain regions has been demonstrated by positron emission tomography (Momose et al., 2002; Onozuka et al., 2011), and by that research employing functional magnetic resonance imaging, showing increases in cerebral blood flow when gum chewing (Sesay et al., 2011; Onozuka et al., 2011; and Houcan & Li, 2007). Likewise, Onozuka et al. (2011) found that chewing-gum resulted in a bilateral increase in blood oxygen level dependence signals to a number of brain regions including the sensory motor cortex, supplementary motor area, insula, thalamus and the cerebellum.
It is theoretically plausible, therefore, that such neurological activity acts to maintain performance alertness independently of participants’ subjective ratings of alertness.
In other words, chewing gum has been observed not just to be beneficial to auditory tasks such as the one in the new study by Morgan and colleagues, but in many aspects of our cognition (e.g., visual tasks). For example – just as I learnt as a child – chewing gum causes more neurological activity. The subtle boost of adrenaline (not as dramatic as you see in the movies, but enough to help you concentrate more) influences your nervous system, which is like the “director” in the “movie” that is your body. Also, as the last sentence suggests, this may even be happening without the participants even realizing it. That is, regardless of whether or not the participants said they were alert, the gum-chewing participants produced better results.
Chewing gum also increases blood-flow to the brain, which is of course a good thing if you’re trying to do a mental task like studying. Consistent with these results is another study from Cardiff in 2010, which found that chewing gum also yielded faster reaction times, greater alertness, improved selective attention, and a more positive mood. Raised heart rate and cortisol levels were observed, which gave a physiological substantiation to the idea that chewing gum causes more alertness.
The Bottom Line
Note that nowhere in this research was there a statement to the effect of “gum causes cognitive benefits.” I don’t know of a study that has looked at the specific reasons for these benefits, but it’s an interesting question. Is it the sugar found in gum? Gustation – the experience of the taste of gum? If so, would that mean that gum which loses its taste loses its cognitive benefits? Would changing to a new piece of gum improve cognition? Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the gum itself, but of the act of chewing. Could these results therefore be replicated by participants who simulate the act of chewing in the complete absence of gum? Or what if they suck on candy instead of chew it? These are all questions we’ll have to look forward to in the future.
It’ll take more than a gumshoe to figure out that mystery – we’ll need many studies to tease out the specifics. But for now, all we can say is that if you’re having trouble concentrating for extended periods of time, it is probably best for you to start chewing gum while you study.
Morgan, K., Johnson, A. J. and Miles, C. (2013), Chewing gum moderates the vigilance decrement. British Journal of Psychology, DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12025
Smith, A. (2010). Effects of chewing gum on cognitive function, mood and physiology in stressed and non-stressed volunteers Nutritional Neuroscience, 13 (1), 7-16 DOI: 10.1179/147683010X12611460763526