I recently read a striking Twitter claim from a well-known teacher: chewing gum helps memory and concentration.
In fact, according to the teacher, research supports this claim: the tweet cites this study as one of many to make this gum-chewing suggestion credible.
I’m always on the lookout for practical strategies to boost memory and attention. If chewing gum gets the job done, well, that’s exciting news. (I can already hear the catchy new jingle: “Double your learning, double your fun, with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum!”)
At the same time, I confess, the idea has a Mozart-effect whiff of implausibility.
I can imagine that, perhaps, chewing gum raises alertness levels (for some people); this increased alertness might result in greater learning. But I suspect that effect would wear off fairly quickly.
Of course, if good research consistently supports the claim, then I’ll admit my instincts mislead me. However, I’d like to take a look at that research first…
We start with good news. The well-known teacher said that research supports the claim, and then cited research.
I’m amazed how often that second step doesn’t happen.
Folks regularly claim that “research shows” that a teaching technique provides specific benefits, but won’t identify any specific research. “Oh, you know, all the research shows that…” (Pro tip: in psychology, it is NEVER true that “all the research” shows anything. If someone says that to you, you can politely and confidently decline their advice.)
This teacher, however, gives us the crucial details. We can look for ourselves.
When we do, we get a bit more good news. This research study does indeed conclude that chewing gum helps with memory and attention. So far, so good.
At the same time, we can register some important concerns.
First: the study includes sixteen participants. Now, researchers have good reasons to run small studies; they let scholars know if they should run larger studies testing the same idea. However, teachers should never change our classroom based on such a small sample. We want MUCH more evidence. (How much more? Keep reading…)
Second: the study is published in The International Journal of Scientific Research and Engineering Development. I don’t know anything about it (although its website says that it does use peer review). However, I’m inclined to rely on memory research in journals that focus on memory, rather than on engineering.
Third: the researcher’s technique for measuring attention is rather hunchy. The researchers videotaped participants, and looked for behavior that suggested inattention. As I’ve written before, that strategy doesn’t sound highly scientific.
And so: we can conclude that — yes — this research supports the claim that chewing gum improves memory and attention. But given its size, provenance, and methodology, we probably want more evidence before we start making big changes to our teaching.
The Adventure Continues
To see how others responded to this study, I plugged it into my two favorite ai platforms: scite.ai and connectedpapers.com. Alas, neither search produced any results. I’m guessing (but I don’t know) that the journal doesn’t meet the standards that these websites use.
Next, I searched for papers about chewing gum and learning.
The most cited paper, according to Google Scholar, comes from 2002. In it, Wilkinson and others conclude that chewing gum does indeed help memory (but not attention).
However, according to this paper by Tucha,
the chewing of gum did not improve participants’ memory functions. Furthermore, chewing may differentially affect specific aspects of attention. While sustained attention was improved by the chewing of gum, alertness and flexibility were adversely affected by chewing. In conclusion, claims that the chewing a gum improves cognition should be viewed with caution.
And this 2009 study by Smith concludes,
The results of this study showed that chewing gum increases alertness. In contrast, no significant effects of chewing gum were observed in the memory tasks. Intellectual performance was improved in the gum condition. Overall, the results suggest further research on the alerting effects of chewing gum and possible improved test performance in these situations.
In other words: three studies show a cluttered hodgepodge of results.
If we look at research findings about, say, retrieval practice, we find that – over and over – it helps! In this case, however, no consistent message comes through.
I’ve even looked for a meta-analysis about chewing gum and memory. (I wonder if I’m the only person in history to google “chewing gum meta-analysis.”)
This overview, noting that we can find clear evidence of both benefits and detriments, concludes that “the robustness of reported effects of gum chewing on cognition has to be questioned.”
To Sum Up
First: We have a surprising (to me) amount of research into the cognitive effects of chewing gum. However, that research doesn’t provide a clear picture if its benefits, or detriments.
We might have school or classroom policies about gum, but we shouldn’t claim that research has given us clear guidance one way or another.
Does chewing gum improve memory? We just don’t know.
Second: People often tell us: “you should change your teaching or your school policies: research says so!”
When that happens, start by looking at the research they cite. If it doesn’t inspire confidence, keep looking…