If you thought that chewing gum helped you concentrate, it might be time to reassess. While some old research has suggested that it can help you with abstract reasoning and logic puzzles, new research reveals that it can completely screw up your short-term memory.
The new study, carried out at the University of Cardiff in the UK, pitted participants against classic short-term memory challenges, with and without gum. The tests had the volunteers attempt to recall lists of words and numbers in the order they were seen or heard and also had them identify missing items from lists after they had been read out.
The researchers found that chewing seems to impair our ability to recall items in the correct order and also makes us worse at suggesting missing items from a memorised list. While in the past researchers have suggested that chewing promotes blood flow to the brain, in turn improving cognitive function, the researchers from Cardiff have a different theory.
They suggest that the periodic action that is chewing gets in the way of repetitious cognitive tasks. If you try and memorise a phone number while tapping your finger, you'll find it much harder than if you're not tapping — and they suggest the exact same thing is true of chewing. In fact, they even performed an experiment along those lines, and found that both tapping and chewing gum had similar results on short-term memory.
This flies in the face of some previous studies, which have suggested that chewing gum can improve your ability to reason through complex problems and solve logic puzzles.
But there's a fundamental difference between these two cognitive processes: memorising and accessing lists from short-term memory uses completely different processes and parts of the brain to logic and abstract reasoning. Logic is handled primarily by the neocortex, while short-term memory is dealt with all the way over in the pre-frontal lobe. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that the most recent studies have shown that any improvement only lasts for 20 minutes at best, anyway.
What this all means for your future chewing is difficult to say with certainty. If you use your short-term memory a lot at work, it might pay to kick the habit. If you're thinking through abstract concepts all day long though, the occasional quick chew might give you the boost you need. [The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology and Appetite]
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