Chewing gum can make our breath feel minty clean, but do we get any other benefits from chomping on that stick of spearmint? Some research claims that chewing gum can improve recall, memory, and alertness. But some are wondering if false hopes might be gumming up the results.
The Straight Talk
One of the first studies to hint at the possibility between gum and memory was a 2002 study published in the journal Appetite. The researchers took seventy-five adults and separated them into three groups: those that chewed gum during a twenty-minute test of memory and attention, those that mimicked the chewing movement, and those that did not chew at all.
They found that peopled who chewed scored better on long- and short-term memory tests (measured by word recall). But just how does chewing gum do this? The authors speculated on three possible explanations: brain activity in the hippocampus increases while people chew, so this might help with memory; gum chewing promotes the release of insulin, which might indirectly affect memory; and the most straightforward—chewing can increase heart rate slightly, and this increased blood flow could deliver more oxygen to the brain.
Following these results, another study published in Appetite in 2004 supported the conclusions, finding that “chewing gum at initial learning was associated with superior recall.”
But does gum really help with memory or is it just the action of chewing itself? Many researchers aren’t so sure. A study published in 2009 found that it wasn’t the gum per se—any candy or oral stimulus can help a person remember information. The researchers used 101 student volunteers to test whether word recall was improved with cinnamon chewing gum versus cinnamon candy.
There was no difference in the candy versus the gum group, and the authors speculate that it might be the action of the mouth, rather than the gum, that helps to serve as a memory cue. If you’re moving your mouth while learning, this may help to cue up the memory when you’re moving your mouth while being tested for that information. Furthermore, the authors speculate that scent, which can serve as a powerful memory cue, may have a role as well.
Yet other researchers failed to replicate any link between gum chewing and learning or memory. A 2009 study published in the journal Nutrition Neuroscience found that while chewing gum can increase alertness (as almost any type of movement can) “no significant effects of chewing gum were observed in the memory tasks.” A study that re-examined previous research found that “chewing gum of itself is not a sufficient condition to provoke context-dependent learning with immediate testing.”
There’s no solid evidence to prove that chewing gum will necessarily improve memory and recall, though it may serve as a memory cue and increase alertness. But chances are any benefits it lends are small. If you like gum, chew it; if not, there’s always a cup of coffee to help keep you alert and focused.