How Gum Chewing Can Enhance Creative Thinking

Chewing Gum

Gum chewing is underappreciated as a simple mind hack for a cognitive boost. It especially useful for creative thinking if your creative challenge requires greater persistence, focus and attention to details, and ability to inhibit distractions.

How Gum Chewing Benefits Creative Thinking

Dozens of studies tested how gum chewing affects cognitive functions, and generally it has been shown to produce various cognitive improvements, including increased alertness, improved selective and sustained attention, faster reaction times, and so on.[1] So when advertisers of chewing gum promised that their product would help tired people, they were unwittingly telling the truth. It has, however, little or no effect on some cognitive functions such as verbal fluency. Still, it has many positive effects.

Most importantly, it has a noticeable effect on working memory.[2] Essentially, working memory capacity is about how much information you can hold and manipulate in your mind at once, whether for comprehension, planning, or reasoning. (It is measured, for example, by the OSPAN task in which participants solve math operations while memorizing unrelated words.) Working memory is extremely important for our ability to do any complex thinking and problem solving.

Some studies show that working memory also benefits creative thinking, primarily by enhancing cognitive persistence. For example, a 2012 study by Dutch researchers tested the correlation between working memory and improvisation in semiprofessional cellists who had little or no experience in improvisation.[3] The study found that people with higher working memory capacity played better improvisations, especially as they progressed through trials.
In another of their studies, the Dutch researchers found that higher working memory capacity also helped in a simple brainstorming task. People with high working memory capacity generated ideas that were more novel and original. This effect is most likely due to the increased persistence. Basically, the greater working memory capacity and the associated persistence helps you go beyond the familiar ideas and persist in finding and generating more novel ones.

Why Gum Chewing Works

Exactly how gum chewing produces its beneficial effects is not entirely clear. Most likely it works by moderately increasing arousal. Studies show, for example, that it slightly increases heart rate (about 10 heart beats per minute) and blood flow to the brain.[4] Moderate arousal is preferable for all sorts of mental tasks, but many people think that the optimal mental state for thinking is not activation but relaxation. Yet, even creativity, at least the deliberate kind, is usually enhanced with activating moods: positive or negative activating moods (e.g. joy or anger) lead to greater creativity than positive or negative deactivating moods (e.g. relaxation or sadness).[5]

Why Timing is Critical

The critical part with gum chewing is timing: it is important to stop chewing before doing the task. Studies show that gum chewing gives the cognitive boost if it is done before and not during the mental task. In fact, if you chew during the task, instead of a cognitive boost you may experience a cognitive drop.[6]

Also, just as with BEMs, the positive effects don’t last very long—only about 15 minutes, so it is best to finish chewing a few minutes before you need to boost your working memory fast.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

[1] For reviews, see Andrew P. Allen and Andrew P. Smith, “A Review of the Evidence that Chewing Gum Affects Stress, Alertness and Cognition”, Journal of Behavioral and Neuroscience Research, 9, 7-23 (2011); Francisco Bruno Teixeira, Luanna de Melo Pereira Fernandes, Patrycy Assis Tavares Noronha, Marcio Antonio Raiol dos Santos, Walace Gomes-Leal, Cristiane do Socorro Ferraz Maia, and Rafael Rodrigues Lima, “Masticatory Deficiency as a Risk Factor for Cognitive Dysfunction”, International Journal of Medical Sciences, 11, 209-214 (2014). DOI: 10.7150/ijms.6801.

[2] Serge V. Onyper, Timothy L. Carr, John S. Farrar, and Brittney R. Floyd, “Cognitive Advantages of Chewing Gum. Now You See Them, Now You Don’t”, Appetite, 57, 321-328 (2011). DOI:10.1016/j.appet.2011.05.313.

[3] Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Bernard A. Nijstad, Matthijs Baas, Inge Wolsink, and Marieke Roskes, “Working Memory Benefits Creative Insight, Musical Improvisation, and Original Ideation Through Maintained Task-Focused Attention,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 38, 656 –669 (2012). DOI: 10.1177/0146167211435795.

[4] Farella, M., Bakke, M., Michelotti, A., Marotta, G., & Martina, R.. Cardiovascular responses in humans to experimental chewing of gums of different consistencies. Archives of Oral Biology, 44, 835–842 (1999); Momose, I., Nishikawa, J., Watanabe, T., Sasaki, Y., Senda, M., Kubota, K., et al. “Effect of mastication on regional cerebral blood flow in humans examined by positron-emission tomography with 15 O-labelled water and magnetic resonance imaging.” Archives of Oral Biology, 42, 57–61 (1997).

[5] Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard A. Nijstad, “Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood–Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 739–756 (2008). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.5.739.

[6] Serge V. Onyper, Timothy L. Carr, John S. Farrar, and Brittney R. Floyd, “Cognitive Advantages of Chewing Gum. Now You See Them, Now You Don’t”, Appetite, 57, 321-328 (2011). DOI:10.1016/j.appet.2011.05.313.
One possible reason why this interference happens is the shared resources hypothesis: gum chewing and mental work require some of the same resources, so when they are used for gum chewing they are not available for cognitive functions.