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Jewish World Review
Chewing gum and memory
Harvard Mental Health Letter
Many people chew gum to relieve stress, and some believe that it helps
them to concentrate. Since 2000, a small group of neuroscience
researchers has engaged in a spirited debate about whether chewing gum
might improve attention, memory, and other aspects of cognition.
Since 2002, when English researchers published a paper on the topic, a
dozen studies have followed on the topic of gum chewing and cognition.
The evidence is not sufficient to support the claim that chewing gum
improves working memory (information needed temporarily, such as phone
numbers) or episodic memory (initial and delayed recall of information
such as words). Further muddying the waters, some of the research was
funded by companies that sell gum and stand to profit from pro-gum
One reaction to this line of research might be laughter. In fact, one
of our editorial board members suggested we present this summary "gum
in cheek." What the research does do is remind us that learning and
memory are brain-based activities that are affected by external
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Context, or environment, affects learning and recall. With a tip of
the hat to the author Marcel Proust, whose childhood memories came
rushing back after he bit into an almond-flavored madeleine, some gum
researchers have investigated whether it is the flavor of chewing gum
that helps people retain and recall memories. In scientific terms,
this is known as context-dependent learning. Gum studies have
evaluated a variety of flavored gums and unflavored "controls," but
the results are inconclusive.
Other research is based on the premise that the brain is a hungry
organ a "selfish" consumer of energy. Although it accounts for only
2% of body weight, the brain uses about half of the body's energy
resources. Along these lines, one theory is that gum may improve
memory because the act of chewing tricks the stomach into thinking it
is about to receive food. Receptors in the stomach stimulate the
release of insulin, the hormone that increases uptake of glucose by
cells, including those in the brain. A related theory also not
proven is that the act of chewing gum may increase blood flow to the
brain, delivering not only nutrients but also additional oxygen.
For now, though, the theories continue to outpace the evidence. People
who want to boost their memory can certainly chew gum if they want to,
but there is no guarantee it will help.
Smith A. "Effects of Chewing Gum on Cognitive Function, Mood and
Physiology in Stressed and Non-stressed Volunteers," Nutritional
Neuroscience (Feb. 2010): Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 7-16.
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