Many people – including those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – swear that chewing gum helps them perform better on schoolwork and other tasks that require concentration. Some even suggest that chewing gum should be mandatory in schools to help improve school performance. This theory seems to be supported by other studies, including one that found students who chewed gum improved their performance on test scores. Researchers theorize that it’s the increased blood flow to the brain that chewing that’s behind gum-chewing’s concentration boost.
But results from a new study at University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom have cast doubt on the use of gum as a “silver bullet” for boosting concentration. Instead, the Cardiff researchers found that it’s the type of mental task a person is doing that makes chewing gum a help or a hindrance.
Chewing vs. Concentrating
In their study, scientists assigned participants a series of short-term memory tasks such as recalling a list of words and numbers or identifying missing items from a list that had been read aloud. The study participants either chewed gum while performing these tasks or did not chew gum.
The researchers found that gum chewing actually interfered with the participants’ ability to perform both tasks. They believe this is because doing a repetitive motion such as chewing (or finger-tapping, which they also tested in the experiment) decreases the brain’s ability to recall lists or fill in missing items from lists.
But how can two studies find such different evidence, one for and one against gum chewing as a concentration tool?
The Cardiff researchers say it’s because the types of logic and abstract thinking tasks completed in the first studies use completely different parts of the brain than those tested in their study. Logic and abstract reasoning take place in the neocortex, while the short-term memory tasks are processed in the pre-frontal lobe. Thus, it appears that gum chewing may help one type of thinking (abstract thinking and logic), while it may interfere with another (memorization and recall).
So if you’re one of the many people who chew gum when you’re working on complex mental tasks, what should you do? The answer is to do what works for you. If chewing gum appears to improve your performance on mental tasks, then by all means, chew away! As long as you don’t overdo it (which, in extreme cases, to a laxative effective from too much artificial sweetener, TMJ, or – in very rare cases – intestinal blockages from swallowing too much gum), it’s a safe way to help your brain complete its work.