Can chewing gum improve my test scores?

1) What are your thoughts on the effect of context memory?

2) Do you think chewing gum affects the performance of a student’s test?

3) Do you think chewing gum helps people memorize things?
— Students from Mercer Island High School

Author's Note: This series of questions arrived while I was at a conference. In the time between talks, I crowdsourced some quick (read: short, unsourced) answers. Thanks to the expert panel who provided their thoughts (read: my conference roommates), Kelly Zalocusky and Cora Ames.

There is a strong effect of context on memory recall. For example, you'll probably perform better on a test if you take it in the same room where you memorized the information included in the test. This presumably has something to do with you being surrounded by a consistent set of physical stimuli.

In the case of chewing gum, I imagine it would help a student's test performance only if she had consistently chewed gum while learning the subject material. 

How does the brain encode memories in a context-dependent manner? We're not totally sure yet, but there are many labs studying this question. It seems to involve some overlapping processes: knowing where you are, knowing what task you're doing, forming new memories. This process will undoubtably involve the hippocampus, a brain region involved in both spatial navigation/localization and the formation of new memories. It seems likely that the cortex will also play a major role, as various groups have shown recently that neurons located in various regions of the cortex response to stimuli in a context-dependent manner. For example, I was recently chatting with a friend who studies cells in the brain that respond to particular sounds. He's found that by switching the context in which a sound is played, the ensemble of neurons responding to that sound shifts substantially. So the brain seems to care a lot about the context in which events occur, although how this translates into the formation and retrieval of memories remains unknown. 


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog