Will chewing gum make you smarter? My friends said it won’t. Please help me decide. – Jennifer, Texas
To my surprise, informed opinions abound on this question. There have even been honest-to-goodness experiments – some more biased than others. One oft-quoted font of behavioral research, the Wrigley Science Institute (of Wrigley’s chewing gum fame), offers this:
“A non-scientific informal survey of the 591 students found that students who chewed [Wrigley’s] gum… during the exam reported a mean score of 90; students who chewed the whole pack of [Wrigley’s] gum before the exam reported a mean score of 86; while those who chewed no gum at all reported a mean score of 60.”
The Wrigley Institute seems to be suggesting that gum can turn your little underachiever into Harvard material. The report stated that “when we announced the findings of the informal survey, you could literally hear a gasp from the class.” One hopes that the A-students, with entire packs of gum in their mouths, did not choke.
Perhaps we should look beyond gasp-inducing surveys toward more objective research.
Annie, Get Your Gum
One of the earliest reference to the smarts-inducing quality of gum comes from a 1940 report which stated:
“Chewing gum not only reduces general restlessness and muscular tension in unrelated bodily parts, but also causes more energy to be put into the activities of the main occupation” (Freeman, 1940).
The author was clearly suggesting that gum-chewing led to performance-enhancing relaxation. Unfortunately for gum proponents, Freeman found that foot-tapping was equally relaxing but cautioned that “if either chewing or tapping were engaged in too strenuously, no tension reduction would occur.” Take heed, kids.
A more recent study from the United Kingdom (Wilkinson et al., 2002) caused controversy in the international gum-chewing community by suggesting that gum improves memory. They noticed improved performance among gum chewers and hypothesized that gum enhances cognitive functioning either by increasing cerebral blood flow or by promoting the release of insulin, which could indirectly affect memory.
Other support for the Gum-Smart hypothesis includes:
- A 2004 study suggesting that chewing gum improves functions such as working memory and processing speed by delivering glucose to the bloodstream (Stevens, 2004).
- A 2005 study examining the relationship between cognitive functioning and performance-enhancing odors. Cinnamon-flavored gum (which delivered a cinnamon scent to the nose) reportedly improved participants’ attention, recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor response speed (Zoladz & Raudenbush, 2005).
A different argument, which can be used either for or against the Gum-Smart hypothesis, involves state-dependent learning: when you are tested on a task, you should try to replicate the conditions under which you learned that task. For example, if you chewed gum while studying for the bar exam, you should chew gum when you take the bar exam (Baker, et al., 2004). (We must factor out the possibility anyone chewing gum during the bar exam will be beaned with pencils and other objects, thus negating any cognitive gains realized by the chewing of gum.)
The Gum Control Lobby
Naturally, the Gum-Smart hypothesis has its detractors. For example, some researchers have failed to reproduce the state-dependent learning effect (Miles & Johnson, 2007). And in a direct blow to the Gum-Smart hypothesis, Tucha et al. (2004) not only failed to reproduce improvements on cognitive function, but suggested that gum can actually have adverse effects on cognition:
“The results showed that the chewing of gum did not improve participants’ memory functions. Furthermore, chewing may differentially affect specific aspects of attention. While sustained attention was improved by the chewing of gum, alertness and flexibility were adversely affected by chewing. In conclusion, claims that the chewing of gum improves cognition should be viewed with caution.”
Those are harsh words, fellas.
Like any great debate, this one will rage on. Or maybe not. Perhaps the bounds of gum-enhanced cognition have been exhaustively explored.
Any cognitive improvements realized by chewing gum are probably negligible, at best, Jennifer. I wouldn’t rely too heavily on it. There are proven and reliable ways to enhance your mental functioning, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising. When you need to perform well on a test, nothing beats study and practice – despite what gum evangelists might lead you to believe.
Baker, J.R., Bezance, J.B., Zellaby, E., & Aggleton J.P. (2004). Chewing gum can produce context-dependent effects upon memory. Appetite, 43(2), 207-210.
Freeman, G.L. (1940). Dr. Hollingworth on chewing as a technique of relaxation. Psychological Review, 47(6), 491-493.
Miles, C. & Johnson, A.J. (2007). Chewing gum and context-dependent memory effects: A re-examination. Appetite, 48(2), 154-158.
Stephens, R. & Tunney, R.J. (2004). Role of glucose in chewing gum-related facilitation of cognitive function. Appetite, 43(2), 211-213.
Tucha, O., Mecklinger, L., Maier, K., et al. (2004). Chewing gum differentially affects aspects of attention in healthy subjects. Appetite, 42(3), 327-329.
Wilkinson, L., Scholey, A., & Wesnes, K. (2002). Chewing gum selectively improves aspects of memory in healthy volunteers. Appetite, 38(3), 235-236.
Zoladz, P.R. & Raudenbush, B. (2005). Cognitive enhancement through stimulation of the chemical senses. North American Journal of Psychology, 7(1), 125-138.