The Science Behind Why Chewing Gum Helps You Concentrate

Tap our feet, twirl our hair, chew some gum; many of us have a preferred way to fidget when it's time to concentrate. And although many swear by these methods — that they do actually help them focus — most people believe the positive cognitive side effects are all in our head, as anyone who's taken a test in a no-gum-chewing classroom can attest. According to a 2015 St. Lawrence University study, though, there may be something more to chewing gum and improved mental focus than your 7th grade math teacher once believed (per Biomed Research International, posted at the National Library of Medicine).

The net positive effect of chewing gum, which humans have done since the time of the Ancient Greeks (via a 2011 report in WIRED), doesn't appear to be related to a sugar rush. And the positive cognitive effects of gum chewing even seems to outperform caffeine. The reason that chewing gum helps us concentrate is instead linked to something now known as mastication-induced arousal.

Chewing gum wakes us up

According to recent studies, mastication-induced arousal is not the only positive side effect of gum chewing, either. As it turns out, a number of researchers have set about getting to the bottom of gum chewing's appeal. Scientists at the U.K.'s Coventry University wondered if chewing really does help us feel more awake, as some people claim. Those findings, from a 2012 edition of Physiology and Behavior, are now also published on the National Library of Medicine website. 

What those researchers discovered was that gum chewing not only decreases self-reported feelings of sleepiness, but popping some Juicy Fruit in your mouth really does help wake us up. That's based on the Pupillographic Sleepiness Test (PST), which uses pupil oscillation as a measure of tiredness, as WIRED reports. Also seeking answers regarding the link between gum chewing and improved cognitive performance were researchers at Cardiff University in Wales. Their findings, published in 2010 in Nutritional Neuroscience and which are also now published on the NLM website, indicates chewing gum lessens stress indicators in high-pressure situations and boosts reports of an overall improved mood among test participants.

What is mastication-induced arousal?

More than anything, though, scientists believe the positive cognitive side-effects of gum chewing can be attributed to something called mastication-induced arousal. As Scientific American explained in 2013, researchers reached these conclusions when two groups of study participants were asked to listen to a half-hour recording in which a number sequence was included. One group chewed gum, while the other did not. What scientists found is that the gum-chewing group had better recall on the number sequence than the group that did not. And here's why they think that's the case.

That better retention can be attributed to something called mastication-induced arousal, those researchers concluded. Chewing gum, it seems, boosts oxygen levels in the brain, and especially to areas related to attention, as Scientific American goes on to note. People who just pretend to chew gum don't seem to enjoy the same benefits. Unfortunately, though, the overall added brain boost from gum chewing also appears to wear off after about 20 minutes (via WIRED). Wherever no-gum-chewing-in-class policies still exists, though, there's an abundance of scientific evidence that they should be reconsidered. If they are, educational outcomes may just improve as a result.