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Some Tentative Cognitive Effects of Chewing Gum

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: Milad Mosapoor)

Highlights from gummy, chewy research literature about cognition
compiled by Katherine Lee, Improbable Research staff

Numerous researchers, doing numerous studies, have debated and are debating whether there are cognitive effects of chewing chewing gum, and if there are such effects, what, how strong, and how consistent those effects may be.

Cognitive Advantages of Chewing Gum
“Cognitive Advantages of Chewing Gum: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t,” Serge V. Onyper, Timothy L. Carr, John S. Farrar, and Brittney R. Floyd, Appetite, vol. 57, no. 2, October 2011, pp. 321–8. The authors, at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, explain:

The current series of experiments investigated the effects of the timing of gum chewing on cognitive function, by administering a battery of cognitive tasks to participants who chewed gum either prior to or throughout testing, and comparing their performance to that of controls who did not chew gum. Chewing gum was associated with performance advantages on multiple measures when gum was chewed for 5 min before, but not during, cognitive testing. The benefits, however, persisted only for the first 15–20 min of the testing session, and did not extend to all cognitive domains. This... can potentially account for a wide range of findings reported in the literature.

Chewing Gum and Memory (2004): Yup
“Chewing Gum Can Produce Context-Dependent Effects Upon Memory,” Jess R. Baker, Jessica B. Bezance, Ella Zellaby, and John P. Aggleton, Appetite, vol. 43, 2004, pp. 207–10. The authors, at Cardiff University, Wales, U.K., report:

Two experiments examined whether chewing spearmint gum can affect the initial learning or subsequent recall of a word list. Comparing those participants in Experiment 1 who chewed gum at the learning or the recall phases showed that chewing gum at initial learning was associated with superior recall. In addition, chewing gum led to context-dependent effects as a switch between gum and no gum (or no gum and gum) between learning and recall led to poorer performance. Experiment 2 provided evidence that sucking gum was sufficient to induce some of the same effects as chewing.

Chewing Gum and Memory (2007): Nope
“Chewing Gum and Context-Dependent Memory Effects: A Re-Examination,” Christopher Miles and Andrew J. Johnson, Appetite, vol. 48, no. 2, March 2007, pp. 1548. (Thanks to Martin Gardiner for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, also at Cardiff University, report:

Two experiments re-examined whether chewing spearmint gum affects initial word learning and/or immediate recall for a word list. Both experiments failed to show effects of chewing gum at learning or recall, nor did they suggest that chewing gum produces a context-dependent memory effect.

Chewing Gum versus Depression
“Chewing Gum May Be an Effective Complementary Therapy in Patients with Mild to Moderate Depression,” Furkan Muhammed Erbay, Nazan AydIn, and Tülay SatI-KIrkan, Appetite, vol. 65, June 2013, pp. 31–4. The authors, at Ataturk University, Erzurum, Turkey, explain:

30 patients with mild to moderate depression were given either medication combined with chewing gum, or medication only, for 6 weeks.... Those patients who were administrated chewing gum responded better to the treatment than patients who took medication only. The most beneficial effect of chewing gum was observed on the gastrointestinal symptoms, e.g. loss of appetite, and flatulence among others. These results indicate that chewing gum may not be directly effective on depressed mood; however, it may reduce the symptoms originating from depression.

Cognitive Disadvantages of Chewing Gum, and Chewing’s Relation to Tapping
“Gummed-up Memory: Chewing Gum Impairs Short-Term Recall,” Michail D. Kozlov, Robert W. Hughes, and Dylan M. Jones, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 65, no. 3, March 2012, pp. 501–13. (Thanks to Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, coincidentally at Cardiff University, explain:

Several studies have suggested that short-term memory is generally improved by chewing gum. However, we report the first studies to show that chewing gum impairs short-term memory.... Experiment 1 showed that chewing gum reduces serial recall of letter lists. Experiment 2 indicated that chewing does not simply disrupt vocal–articulatory planning required for order retention: Chewing equally impairs a matched task that required retention of list item identity. Experiment 3 demonstrated that manual tapping produces a similar pattern of impairment to that of chewing gum.

Detail from the study “Gummed-up Memory: Chewing Gum Impairs Short-Term Recall.”

Scholey the Gum-chewing Effects Gumshoe
Andrew Scholey, at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., and later at Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia, has done a lengthy series of experiments involving chewing gum and the mind. Other scholars have, in some cases, found some of these studies to be provocative.

Scholey on Gum (2002)
“Chewing Gum Selectively Improves Aspects of Memory in Healthy Volunteers,” Lucy Wilkinson, Andrew Scholey, and Keith Wesnes, Appetite, vol. 38, 2002, pp. 235–6.

These results provided the first evidence that the chewing of gum can improve episodic memory (involving the learning, storage and retrieval of information) and working memory (where information is held “on line”).

Scholey on Gum (2004)
“Chewing Gum and Cognitive Performance: A Case of a Functional Food with Function but No Food?”, Andrew Scholey, Appetite, vol. 43, no. 2, October 2004, pp. 215–6.

Recent reports suggest that enhancement of memory performance while chewing gum is a fairly robust phenomenon. The processes underlying the effect are not known, but may involve glucose delivery, context-dependent effects and arousal mechanisms amongst others. This brief commentary outlines the main findings from these studies and raises some issues regarding interpretation, methodology and future research directions.

Stephens on Gum
“Role of Glucose in Chewing Gum-Related Facilitation of Cognitive Function,” Richard Stephens and Richard J. Tunney, Appetite, vol. 43, no. 2, Oct. 2004, pp. 211–3. Richard Stephens is an Ig Nobel Prize winner, having been awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel peace prize for his study “Swearing as a Response to Pain” (Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston, Neuroreport, vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009, pp. 1056–60). In this gum study Stephens and co-author Tunney write:

This study tests the hypothesis that chewing gum leads to cognitive benefits through improved delivery of glucose to the brain, by comparing the cognitive performance effects of gum [chewing a single strip of Wrigley’s sugarfree mint flavoured gum] and glucose administered separately and together.

Stephens on Scholey on Gum
“How Does Chewing Gum Affect Cognitive Function? Reply to Scholey (2004),” Richard Stephens and Richard J. Tunney, Appetite, vol. 43, no. 2, October 2004, pp. 217–8. Stephens and Tunney write:

we discuss here how the studies reviewed by Scholey conform to our hypothesis that chewing gum affects some aspects of cognition by means of enhanced glucose delivery via the act of chewing. At first blush the data reported by Tucha et al. (2004) and Baker et al. (2004) seem inconsistent with this hypothesis. However, Tucha et al. found null effects with respect to both gum-related improvement in cognition and changes in heart rate. This is consistent with our hypothesis that heart rate must increase for chewing gum to enhance cognition.

Scholey on Stephens on Scholey on Gum
“Further Issues Regarding the Possible Modulation of Cognitive Function by the Chewing of gum: Response to Stephens and Tunney (2004) and Tucha et al. (2004),” Andrew Scholey, Appetite, vol. 43, 2004, pp. 221–3. Scholey writes:

An initial summary of four papers in Appetite on modulation of cognitive function while chewing gum attempted to identify the bearing of similarities and differences between methodologies on the results reported. In their responses the authors of two of the papers highlight further methodological and theoretical issues, and these are discussed briefly here.

Scholey on Gum (2009)
“Chewing Gum Alleviates Negative Mood and Reduces Cortisol During Acute Laboratory Psychological Stress,” Andrew Scholey, Crystal Haskell, Bernadette Robertson, David Kennedy, Anthea Milne, Mark Wetherell, Physiology and Behavior, June 22, 2009, vol. 97, nos. 3–4, pp. 304–312. (Thanks to Ig Nobel Prize winner Richard Wassersug for bringing this to our attention.) Scholey and his colleagues write:

to what extent can sugar-free gum be classed as a nutraceutical? The latter is strictly defined as any substance that is a food or a part of a food which provides medical or health benefits. The term is used more loosely to describe so-called ‘functional foods’ whose administration provides something other than simple nutritional load. Clearly sugar-free gum has no nutritional value as such, ironically making it theoretically more similar to a pharmaceutical than a nutraceutical, despite apparently sharing more elements with feeding than with drug ingestion.


The article above is from the July-August 2014 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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