13 April 2013

Adam Jones Blows Bubbles and He Probably Should

Last Friday’s game, Adam Jones dropped a difficult, but catchable, fly ball where he had to turn back and catch the ball running on his glove side.  To make matters visually worse, this happened while he blew a bubble with his gum.  The dropped fly resulted in the fully loaded bases to clear.  It was a pretty aggravating moment.  The Orioles appeared to have gotten out of a tough jam without any of those baserunners scoring.  The fan base response was quick and almost universally in one voice, Adam Jones has to take the game more seriously and stop blowing bubbles.

However, were all of these complaining people wrong?  Yeah, probably.

First, lets think about this in an everyday kind of way.  Yes, our ability to be alert as well as our reaction time as a population is likely not to be similar to athletes.  That said, I think there is still some merit in thinking about this.  What do you do when you are tired at work?  What do you do when you are tired driving in the car?  For those who played some baseball, what did you or others do will you were out in the field?  For most, the answer is a combination of spitting sunflower seeds, drinking coffee/soda/energy drink, smoking a cigarette, partaking in some chaw, and, yes, chewing gum and maybe even blowing bubbles.

Ok, just because people do it, does it actually work?  There are a lot of things people and athletes do that actually provide no measurable benefit.  There are some players who swear that urinating on their hands will help prevent blistering (think about that when you hand one of them a pen to get their autograph).  There is a kernel of truth in that concept.  Urea certainly can help moisturizing your hands and prevent cracking.  Synthetic urea is often an ingredient in hand moisturizer.  However, a meaningful difference exists between urine and commercial moisturizer.  The moisturizer contains ingredients that help saturate the skin with the chemical whereas pure urine does not do it.  You would need to soak your hands in a bucket of it for about 20 minutes to get a similar result.  So, yeah, people do things that result from a misapplication of the truth.

What is the evidence that gum improves alertness or reactions?

Here are a few summaries:
Cognitive Advantages of Chewing Gum (October 2011)
This study randomly assigned different chewing treatments (i.e., gum, sugar-free gum, no chewing) over a population of 159 college students.  What they found was that the students who chewed gum, regardless of sugar content, outperformed non-chewing students in five of six cognitive tests.  The only one they performed worse in was a verbal exercise.

Effects of Chewing Gum on Cognitive Function (February 2010)
This study took 133 people and treated them three ways (i.e., regular gum, fruit-flavored gum, no chewing).  They measured cognitive function in a few ways.  Specifically, they targeted memory, reaction time, memory, selective attention, and sustained attention.  They found that gum did not seem to affect memory.  However, gum chewing participants as a population performed better in cognitive tests and the performance difference became greater as they put them through more difficult problems.

Chewing Gum Moderates Multi-Task Induced Shifts in Stress, Mood, and Alertness (April 2011)
Thirty participants were divided into groups between chewing and non-chewing one day and then flipped the next day.  Among the items they were testing, chewing gum accomplished one thing: improving alertness based on self-assessment.  This finding has been reported in several other papers.

Chewing Gum Alleviates Negative Mood and Reduces Cortisol During Acute Laboratory Psychological Stress (June 2009)
This study used 40 participants similarly to the previous one, different treatments (i.e., chewing gum, not chewing) on different days.  The researchers ran them through through a multi-tasking exercise that has shown to increase stress.  It includes mental arithmetic, the Stroop task, memory search, and visual tracking.  What they found was that if a person was chewing gum, they processed information more quickly and exhibited characteristics that are related to reduced stress.
So what does this all mean?
There is decent evidence that chewing gum can help improve alertness and reduce stress.  This is not a consensus assessment as there is a large, but minority, group of studies that disagree with positive associations with gum chewing.  The primary mode of action for gum being useful is that chewing results in increased blood flow to the brain.  There is also some belief that by actively engaging the mind in low level mental activities that it enables the brain to quickly flip over to stressors of a more primary concern.  In other words, chewing may help the brain from entering a “day dream” mode by keeping it in a more active thought mode.

No, none of this deals with blowing bubbles.  I tried to find some evidence of repetitive mechanical actions improving concentration or reducing stress.  I think I simply am not aware of the proper terminology.  I think we all know people who perform better when doing annoying things like clicking a pen repeatedly.  Feel free to comment with any papers that discuss that.

The take home message is that we have enough evidence that we should not automatically assume that Adam Jones blowing a bubble is detrimental to his performance.  I think it is also fairly obvious that we should refrain from calling on him to no longer chew gum and blow bubbles to reduce the negative outcry because that behavior may well improve his level of play.  In the end, be irritated that he dropped a ball and leave it at that.  You do not need to take the next step and try to explain why it happened.  Simply, we do not know enough.

Let him chew.  Let him blow.  Let him be one of the better players in baseball.

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