Would you believe that while standing in line to pay for your groceries, you are but an arm's length away from a potent neurochemical catalyst that costs less than a single pill of any antidepressant?
Yes, gum -- wonderful, flavorful, get-your-jaws-moving gum -- is an unlikely object of cognitive science research that turns out to possess qualities Mr. Wrigley would never have guessed.
Gum has been studied for its beneficial effects on memory, alertness, anxiety reduction, appetite suppression, mood and learning. Attributes of gum that have gone under the microscope include its flavor, texture and density, to name a few.
The hunch that spawned gum studies was that chewing gum might increase blood flow to the brain, and that may in turn spark other important effects. Studies like this one out of Cardiff University in the UK take a comprehensive view of gum's potential across multiple areas: learning, mood, memory and intelligence. The findings in this case were that both alertness and intellectual performance were increased in gum-chewing subjects, while memory showed no significant improvements.
Other studies, like the one highlighted in this New Scientist article, have found that some aspects of memory seem to be improved by chewing gum, particularly immediate and delayed word recall, while others are not.
An especially significant 2011 study, reported on by Live Science, found that chewing gum before taking a test improved performance, but chewing gum throughout the test did not. The possible reason for this result is that chewing gum may warm-up the brain, something gum researchers refer to as "mastication-induced arousal." In fact, chewing gum for about 20 minutes is on par with mild exercise in terms of sending more blood to the brain. Continuing to chew after the warm-up period seems to have required too much jaw-work, and burning more energy negated the benefits.
Studies have also found gum to be an effective anxiety buster, though the reasons why are anything but clear. This 2009 study, for instance, found that under laboratory conditions chewing gum resulted in reduced cortisol levels (cortisol is frequently called the "stress hormone") and a reduction in overall anxiety.
And it may also be true that prescription antidepressants have a far cheaper rival wrapped in foil just waiting to be chewed. Studies like this one conducted in Tokyo suggest that prolonged gum chewing activates part of the brain (the ventral part of the prefrontal cortex) that in turns sets off a cascade of effects resulting in fewer feelings of depression. In fact, chewing gum seems to induce suppression of "nociceptive responses" in general-- a bit of jargon loosely translated as 'pain in the brain'.
True enough, the reasons for these effects are still speculative, but the wealth of research pointing to benefits of gum chewing can't be ignored. We may not yet know why it benefits the brain, but few things are simpler or cheaper or less risky than tossing a stick in your mouth for a good chew.
David DiSalvo, Copyright 2012
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