How Gum Chewing Can Enhance Creative Thinking

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.

Broaden Your Visual Attention to Boost Creative Thinking

We normally take advice such as to “look at the big picture and not the details” figuratively, but it turns out that literary looking at the big picture can temporarily improve creative thinking.

Psychologist Ronald Friedman and his colleagues found support for this mind hack in several experiments. In one experiment, for example, subjects were shown maps of particular U.S. states. Some subjects were asked to focus on an entire state, such as Pennsylvania, for an entire time that the map was shown, and also to avoid focusing on any particular city or region of that map. Other subjects were asked to focus on a particular city, such as Selinsgrove in Pennsylvania. As the researchers predicted, those who looked at the big picture did noticeably better on a subsequent creativity task.

Similar to BEMs, the effect of this mind hack is not overwhelmingly great but it still might provide you with some appreciable boost.

Why It Works

The main explanation why this mind hack works is based on the “identity” hypothesis, which suggests that broadening or narrowing our attention on external world relies on the same neural mechanism that broadens or narrows attention on internal ideas or conceptual representations. So by broadening your visual attention on the world around you, you will also broaden the internal or conceptual attention on the world inside you.

Why broadened conceptual attention should help creativity? Creativity often depends on our ability to make new connections or unconventional associations, and thinking in broader categories, as opposed to narrower or more traditional categories, will encourage more remote associations. In essence, thinking in broader categories makes it easier to come up with more atypical and unusual associations, some of which may lead to highly original and valuable ideas.

How To Do It

The technique for this mind hack is pretty straightforward. If you’re in your office or your room, then simply try to focus as broadly as you can on the whole room and don’t look at some particular object or part of the room.

If you’re passing the forest, look at the whole forest and not at particular trees. Using broadened visual attention to search for some item might be even more effective. Try to do it for at least a few minutes.

Furthermore, even subtle cues of broadened visual attention can help. The same researchers also found that merely raising eyebrows can help creativity because we’ve learned to associate raised eyebrows with broadened visual perception; conversely, furrowed brows signal narrowed visual perception, which will also lead to more narrowed internal attention.


Ronald S. Friedman, Ayelet Fishbach, Jens Förster, and Lioba Werth, “Attentional Priming Effects on Creativity”, Creativity Research Journal, 15, 277–286 (2003). DOI:10.1080/10400419.2003.9651420.

Creative Thinking Boost from Bilateral Eye Movements

Doing bilateral eye movements (BEMs) is a simple way to boost creative thinking for a few minutes.

This technique has other benefits apart from creative thinking, such as improvement in episodic memory. Originally it was developed as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and it is known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. (In its basic form, a patient recalls a traumatic memory while doing side-to-side eye movements; sometimes other forms of bilateral stimulation are used, such as hand tapping or binaural sounds.)

When it comes to creativity, a 2009 study by Elizabeth Shobe, Nicholas Ross and Jessica Fleck found that this mind hack has a noticeable effect on two central elements of creative thinking: originality (uniqueness of ideas) and flexibility (generating ideas from distinct categories).[1] A 2015 study by Jessica Fleck and David Braun also found that bilateral eye movements produced some improvements in verbal creativity and convergent thinking (as measured by remote associates test).[2]

Why It Works

There are several explanations. The 2009 study suggested that repeated bilateral eye movements lead to the simultaneous activation of both brain hemispheres, and ultimately this increases the brain’s interhemispheric interaction.[3] (Generally, neuroscientific research suggests that it is better to view creativity as neither the product of exclusively right or the left hemisphere but rather the collaborative effort of the both.[4])  Other explanations suggest that it works more through attentional control or other variables such as arousal, mood, or increased access to right hemisphere’s widespread activation.[5]

How To Do It

The technique itself is quite simple: every half a second move your eyes from one side to the other. For example, in your room look at some object in your far left side and then after half a second look to your far right. Move only your eyes, not the head. Do this for 30 seconds, which will make a total of 60 eye movements. In experiments, participants usually follow a dot alternately appearing on the left and the right side of the computer screen, twice per second.

If you want to try it with guided instruction, check out apps designed for EMDR therapy. (There is at least one free Android app EyeMove EMDR Therapy Free and a paid iOS app Anxiety Release based on EMDR.)

Practical Effect

Will this mind hack turn you into a creative powerhouse? Probably no. At least I haven’t noticed massive effects, but it often does seem to produce slight and subtle improvement. Of course, some people may notice much greater effect.

It is important to do the BEMs right before you need a boost in creativity because originality is enhanced for only about 7-9 minutes, and flexibility only for about 3 minutes (and then there is some marginal benefit for flexibility for 3 more minutes). You could probably do BEMs again after 9 minutes to get a new boost, but studies haven’t tested the effectiveness of repeated BEM sessions.

In any case, this mind hack is not meant to create a sweeping and permanent enhancement; instead, its purpose is more to give you a temporary boost which may be enough to jumpstart your thinking and get creativity flowing.

Overall, considering that it takes only half a minute to do it, there is little downside to trying it. Give it a shot on a few different occasions to see if it works for you.

References and Notes

[1] Elizabeth R. Shobe, Nicholas M. Ross, and Jessica I. Fleck, “Influence of Handedness and Bilateral Eye Movements on Creativity”, Brain and Cognition, 71, 204-214 (2009). DOI:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.08.017.

[2] Jessica I. Fleck and David A. Braun, “The Impact of Eye Movements on a Verbal Creativity Task,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 27, 866–881 (2015). DOI 10.1080/20445911.2015.1036057.

[3] Ruth E. Propper & Stephen D. Christman, “Interhemispheric Interaction and Saccadic Horizontal Eye Movements: Implications for Episodic Memory, EMDR, and PTSD”, Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2, 269–281 (2008). DOI: 10.1891/1933-3196.2.4.269.

BEMs have been shown, for one, to increase inter-hemispheric coherence in the anterior pre-frontal cortex. (Propper et al 2007). Other studies, however, question the increased interhemispheric coherence hypothesis:
Zoe Samara, Bernet M. Elzinga, Heleen A. Slagter, and Sander Nieuwenhuis,”Do Horizontal Saccadic Eye Movements Increase Interhemispheric Coherence? Investigation of a Hypothesized Neural Mechanism Underlying EMDR”, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2 (Article 4) (2011). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00004.

[4] Ingegerd Carlsson, Peter E. Wendt, and Jarl Risberg, “On the Neurobiology of Creativity. Differences in Frontal Activity Between High and Low Creative Subjects”, Neuropsychologia, 38, 873–885 (2000). DOI:10.1016/S0028-3932(99)00128-1.

[5] Jessica I. Fleck and David A. Braun, “The Impact of Eye Movements on a Verbal Creativity Task,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 27, 866–881 (2015). DOI 10.1080/20445911.2015.1036057.

BEMs and Mixed-handers: BEMs are unlikely to benefit mixed-handers. The 2009 study argued that this is because mixed-handers already have high interhemispheric interaction, so they don’t gain anything from BEMs. This is consistent with research showing that mixed-handers generally have greater cognitive flexibility.
Eric Prichard, Ruth E. Propper, and Stephen D. Christman, “Degree of Handedness, But Not Direction, is a Systematic Predictor of Cognitive Performance”, Frontiers in Psychology, 4, Article 9 (2013). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00009.
Mixed-handed people prefer using one hand for some of their daily tasks and the other hand for other tasks, such as writing, using a mouse, etc. Strong-handers, which most people are, have a single dominant hand for all or most of their daily tasks. If you are unsure whether you are a strong-hander or a mixed-hander, you can check out the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, which is a standard questionnaire for hand dominance.

Trump’s Interview Shows His Self-Delusion Remains at Reassuringly Steady Levels

Recently, some of President Trump’s most passionate supporters may have been worried that the president was at times showing disturbing signs of common sense.

Trump’s most recent interview with The New York Times should lay to rest such worries. Among other things Trump said: Continue reading “Trump’s Interview Shows His Self-Delusion Remains at Reassuringly Steady Levels”