Looking for the latest miracle drug? Well, you might not have to go any further than your neighborhood grocery store. And it shouldn’t cost any more than a pack of gum. Oh, wait. That miracle drug actually is gum, according to a team of Japanese researchers. And in Italy, a team of researchers found that dyslexic kids did better on reading tests after they’d played action video games.
Let’s start with the gum. The Japanese team had volunteers take an elaborate 30-minute test to measure alertness and reaction times. The volunteers took the test while chewing gum and without chewing. They found that reaction times were an average of 7% faster when the subjects were chewing than when they weren’t. The difference—545 milliseconds vs. 493 milliseconds—may not seem like much, but those milliseconds can make a world of difference for people like baseball players, who have less than half a second to react to a typical fastball.
“Our results suggest that chewing induced an increase in the arousal level and alertness in addition to an effect on motor control,” wrote the researchers in the journal Brain and Cognition.“… as a consequence, these effects could lead to improvements in cognitive performance.”
Now on to video games. The Italian team, led by Andrea Facoetti, an assistant professor with the Developmental & Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Padua in Italy, had a group of 10 dyslexic kids play a Wii video game called Rayman Raving Rabbids for 12 hours over several days while another group played a video game that didn’t focus on action. According to Facoetti, the children who played the action game showed dramatic improvements—at least as much as they would have after an intense reading program. Facoetti believes that video games could become a tool for teachers who teach reading to dyslexic children. Her findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Current Biology.
The big question here, of course, is why. As far as gum, there are several theories. First, the act of chewing—whether it’s gum, beef jerkey, or just about anything else—increases your heart rate. Increased blood flow brings more oxygen to the brain. Second, chewing also increases insulin production, which is associated with alertness and memory.
And as to action video games, they may improve reading because they help focus children’s minds—at least while they’re playing. At the same time, playing those games may be training the brain to pay more attention to things that are going on around.
But at the end of the day, does it really matter why it works? But it kind of makes me wonder: today it’s gum and video games. What’s next? Are we going to hear someday soon that trans-fats and corn syrup are good for kids too? Hopefully not.