Monday, December 19, 2011

Let Them Chew Gum

Jonah Lehrer points to a study about the gum chewing's cognitive effects.
Gum is an effective booster of mental performance, conferring all sorts of benefits without any side effects. The latest investigation of gum chewing comes from a team of psychologists at St. Lawrence University. The experiment went like this: 159 students were given a battery of demanding cognitive tasks, such as repeating random numbers backward and solving difficult logic puzzles. Half of the subjects chewed gum (sugar-free and sugar-added) while the other half were given nothing. Here’s where things get peculiar: Those randomly assigned to the gum-chewing condition significantly outperformed those in the control condition on five out of six tests. (The one exception was verbal fluency, in which subjects were asked to name as many words as possible from a given category, such as “animals.”) The sugar content of the gum had no effect on test performance.
There are a few limits; Lehrer writes, "as gum chewers only showed an increase in performance during the first 20 minutes of testing. After that, they performed identically to non-chewers."

Gum also helps keep people awake.
Last month, scientists at Coventry University found that people chewing mint gum showed a dramatic decrease in feelings of sleepiness. The subjects also looked less exhausted when assessed with the Pupillographic Sleepiness Test (PST), which uses the oscillations of the pupils as a metric of tiredness. When we chew gum, we gain alertness and attention, but without the jitters.
Lehrer offers this priceless conclusion:
Given the uncanny power of gum, it seems a little silly that we don’t allow it in the classroom. (If a pill achieved these same results, we’d all be popping it.) Of course, gum is disgusting and unsightly once it becomes litter, but it also appears to be a wonderful stimulant, allowing us to benefit from the attentional boost of eating without having to swallow or ingest calories. (Plus, fresh breath!) A recent review of the gum-chewing literature summarizes the science: “Gum appears to be a functional food with function but no food.”
A cynic might say that Lehrer answered his own question about allowing students to chew gum a little over a year ago when he blogged about elementary teachers' responses to creative students.
Would you really want a little Picasso in your class? How about a baby Gertrude Stein? Or a teenage Eminem? The point is that the classroom isn't designed for impulsive expression - that's called talking out of turn. Instead, it's all about obeying group dynamics and exerting focused attention. Those are important life skills, of course, but decades of psychological research suggest that such skills have little to do with creativity.
Let's review:  gum may create a sticky mess and help students thing better.  With those qualities, I'm surprised that Congress doesn't make it illegal for everyone.

After all no one wants smart voters, just followers.

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