For years, we've been told that chewing gum improves memory, information that gave hope to students pulling all-nighters after cramming for finals -- not any more.
A study now pulls the rug from under this theory, claiming that chewing gum doesn't boost your short-term memory, but worsens it.
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. According to Gizmodo Australia, 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 from Cardiff found that "chewing gum impairs short-term memory" when it comes to recalling items in the correct order.
As Gizmodo writes, researchers "suggest that the periodic action that is chewing gets in the way of repetitious cognitive tasks. If you try and memorize 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 study counters previous studies, which suggested that chewing gum may help to make people smarter by improving memory and brain performance.
In 2002, for example, Andrew Scholey, director of the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the University of Northumbria, studied 75 gum-chewers in an attempt to determine the precise effects of chewing gum on cognitive performance, the BBC reported.
One group of 25 were asked to chew sugar-free gum while performing 12 computer tests to measure their reaction time, long and short-term memory and accuracy of attention.
An "active control" group of 25, known as the sham chewers, carried out the tests while miming chewing gum. A third control group of 25 performed the tests but did not chew.
Ireland's Independent reported that those chewing gum significantly outperformed the other two groups, the most dramatic differences in performance being in the chewers' memory.
Asked to recall lists of words previously shown on a screen, the chewers scored an average of seven out of 15, compared with five for the other two groups.
Why the difference?
"The discrepancy between the current study and previous research on the effects of chewing on short term memory could be associated with the absence of flavor in the gum used in the present study," the study authors write. "Flavor has previously been suggested as one factor underpinning the beneficial effects of gum."
In the end, the authors write, that more research is needed in this area to broaden results. But the study does add to existing research and suggests that the disruption produced by chewing might, like tapping, affect performance on other tasks, such as reading.