While chewing gum may not make you look more intelligent, it actually boosts brainpower, new research shows.
People have been chewing gum for about 9,000 years, with ancient Greeks, Mayans and Native Americans popping wads of tree sap or resin in their mouths to freshen their breath.
This enduring habit also sharpens our wits in several surprising ways. Here’s a look at the mental benefits:
A 2011 study published in the journal Appetite tested the effects of chewing gum—either sugar-free or sugar-added—on 159 undergraduate students. Half chomped gum before or throughout taking a battery of difficult mental tests, such as reciting lists of random numbers backwards or solving logic puzzles, and the other half (the control group) didn’t.
Those who chewed gum five minutes before the tests significantly outperformed non-chewers on five out of six of the tests, researchers from St. Lawrence University found. However, the benefits only lasted for the first 15 to 20 minutes of the test and chewing during the tests was not helpful, probably because it distracted the students. The sugar content of the gum had no impact on the test performance.
Teachers who ban gum in class may want to rethink their rules after checking out the intriguing results of a study at Baylor College of Medicine, involving 8th graders at a charter school.
The researchers found that students who chewed gum during math tests—and while doing their math homework—had a 3 percent rise in standardized math scores and higher final grades, compared to non-chompers. “Chewing gum is an easy tool students can use for an academic edge,” said Craig Johnson, PhD, the lead study researcher.
Munching gum also improves memory, a British review of earlier studies found. However, the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear.
One theory is that the physical act of chewing increases blood flow to the brain, a phenomenon the St. Lawrence researchers call “mastication-induced arousal.” They speculate that munching perks up attention but, since the effect is temporary, chewing gum may be most helpful before tackling the toughest questions on a test.
In a 2012 study, researchers at Coventry University found that chewing mint gum dramatically reduced daytime sleepiness, without the jitters brought on by coffee.
Study participants were randomly divided into three groups—with one-third of participants chewing gum, one-third “sham chewing” (making chewing motions with no actual gum in their mouth) and the rest not chewing—as they underwent a pupillographic sleepiness test (measuring the diameter of the eye’s pupils for 11 minutes while the person sits in a darkened room).
The researchers theorize that the higher alertness of the gum chewers may be due to the arousing effects of the mint flavor or increased brain activity during chewing.
In a quirky study at Cardiff University in the UK, 133 volunteers were given demanding mental tests with and without chewing gum of randomly assigned fruit or mint flavors. To make the mental tests even more challenging, half the volunteers were forced to listen to a stress-inducing, 75-decibel noise (equivalent to standing next to a lawn mover) while trying to concentrate on the tests. The rest were tested in a quiet room.
Volunteers rated their mood before and after the testing sessions and had their heart rate monitored. Their levels of cortisol (a stress hormone that’s also a good measure of alertness) were also checked using saliva samples.
The researchers found that chewing gum was linked to greater alertness, faster reaction times on the tests, with performance actually improving as the task became harder, and enhanced attention. And here’s something else to chew on: those who munched gum were also in a better mood.
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