If you read newspaper and internet stories about foods and health, you have no doubt come across articles touting the memory boosting properties of certain foods, like blueberries. Even on this site, a number of posts have touted the memory-boosting properties of certain foods:
- A substance, epicatechin , found in chocolate, has been shown to improve spatial memory. Specifically, it boosted the ability of rats to remember the location of a platform in a murky pool of water. This worked better when the rats were getting regular exercise.
- Another chemical, theanine, found in tea, has been found to boost attention skills, when used in conjunction with caffeine (also found in tea). Human participants were better at picking out a target on a computer screen when their pre-game water had been spiked with the caffeine/theanine combination.
But should you really be scarfing down blueberries, tea and chocolate when you study? Well, maybe, because they all taste good, though the chocolate might make you gain weight, and the tea might keep you awake. But we don’t really know if they will be of any use in the kind of memory involved in studying for school. We don’t know that because we have not seen the research. It is tempting, but foolish, to assume that our brains will respond in much the same way as rat brains, or that success on laboratory tasks will translate to success in real-world tasks. In fact our brains are different in some important ways from rats’ brains (a bigger ratio of cortex to brain, for example) and not all memories are the same (semantic memory, the stuff you know, involves different parts of the brain than procedural memories, what you know how to do).
So where is the real-world, human subjects research? It is quite possible it is sitting in a file-drawer somewhere. It is notoriously difficult to publish studies which show no effect. Perhaps some reputable scientist has actually done research on the effects of chocolate or tea on memory for texts, for example, and found no effect. It would not be easy to get that research into a journal, let alone on to WebMD or USA Today.
Or perhaps the research just hasn’t been done. For reasons I have difficulty fathoming, many scientists, including journal editors, may be more interested in carefully controlled studies using extracts of chocolate on rats doing laboratory memory tasks. It just sounds so much more scientific than the relatively simple experiment of testing tea or chocolate on actual people studying.
Meanwhile, I see no harm in boosting your consumption of blueberries, or replacing other fattening foods with chocolate, or replacing coffee with tea. And who knows, you may someday find yourself swimming in murky water and be glad you did.