Studies show that chewing gum can affect mood and cognition, but can it improve memory? Researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with the support of the Chicago-based Wrigley Science Institute, say that it can.
In a poster presented here today, team member and self-reported gum chewer Xue Wang, laid out the case. Ten healthy subjects performed short-term memory tasks, like trying to identify letters that repeated themselves among a series of letters, while intermittently solving math problems. The researchers ramped up the volunteers' stress levels (as measured via a skin conductor, which operates like a lie detector) by telling the subjects when they got a math answer wrong and pushing them to solve the problems faster.
Gum kept the volunteers sharp. When they chewed, activity increased in the parts of their brains associated with short-term memory—and indeed, they performed better on the memory tests. Their stress levels also went down: Subjects who didn't chew gum were 240% more stressed than baseline; those who did were only 50% more stressd. "It's unbelievable that chewing gum can do so much," says Wang.
Still, not everyone is ready to bite. Hector Vargas-Perez, a drug addiction researcher at the University of Toronto who visited the poster, says it's difficult to know what accounted for the gum's effect. "There are a bunch of variables that are involved: the sugar, the flavor, the mechanical part." Vargas-Perez said that he doesn't chew gum on a regular basis--and that the findings aren't quite enough to convince him to take up the habit.