Just don't tell me I've got an oral fixation

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The Independent Online

What a relief to read that chewing gum is good for your memory. It must be true, it's one of the new "findings" at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Blackpool. Grinding your fangs against a clod of sweetened latex-derivative, they said, raises your heartbeat and produces insulin, both of which help to strengthen your memory (or at least your ability to remember specific words) by a third.

Having been a chronic gum-chewer since I could breathe unaided, I'm delighted to find there's a positive side to this much-abused activity. My parents told me not to chew gum, the school authorities said, "Do not chew gum, Walsh, you grubby oik", my little friends warned against the dangers of chewing gum (especially swallowing it, because it would wrap itself around your heart and kill you), successive women friends said, "Do you have to do that? It makes you look so thick". Of course, they were all wrong – although only now do I appreciate what motivated me. Evidently, I've been chewing the stuff for years because I enjoyed the sensation of having forgotten words popping back into my head. (What kind of words? Oriflamme?, Whirligig? Poopdeck? Something old, picturesque and neglected like that.)

I admit I sometimes suspected that people who chew gum looked bovine, slack-jawed, dull, herbivorous and moronic, but I convinced myself that when I did it, I was just like Rod Steiger playing the southern cop in In the Heat of the Night. He chewed gum intelligently, you see, at a million jaw-movements a second. And now it's become the sweetmeat of choice for today's go-ahead executive masticator.

By coincidence, yesterday was National No-Smoking Day, and the papers were full of the usual health correspondents preaching about tar and lungs and heart failure. Sadly, there were no new findings from any conference in Blackpool or anywhere, indicating that smoking improves your powers of reasoning and your ability to whistle Puccini arias. So I'll just have to go on believing that I smoke because it's a vital balm to the soul after a hard day and that red wine tastes too, you know, jammy without it. Give me time and I'll find a reason that'll make the British Psychological Society sit up and rub its eyes.

But wait a minute. By another odd coincidence, yesterday's Woman's Hour carried an alarming piece about thumb-sucking. Anybody who sucks their thumb after the age of six is, apparently, doomed to social death, ostracism from polite society and probably a terrible wasting disease brought on by excess saliva. Well ,obviously I don't suck my thumb (what do you take me for?), but I still bite my nails unstoppably and I can see how it might, from a distance, look as if a hard-core thumb-sucker was in the vicinity. But I cannot believe that Radio 4's awful warnings have anything to do with me. I'm different. I bite my nails because, as any passing member of the British Psychological Society will tell you, doing so gives the body extra supplies of carbon, phosphorus, iron and zinc because of all the street crap that gets picked up under the nail during an ordinary day, and transfers it to the body's immune system.

Or something like that. The one thing I cannot agree with is the possibility that all the smoking and chewing and nibbling means I'm in the grip of an oral fixation of the most classic, howling, Freudian kind, something to do with breast-feeding or the lack of it, and that I need to see a psychoanalyst. Anything but that. Let me instead make up a dozen spurious reasons for my behavioural tics – just as you, gentle reader, will unthinkingly make up reasons for your own strange behaviour, so you don't have to admit you're neurotic. Even if it means pretending that you're trying to improve your memory by inserting a grey rectangle of rubber gunge in your mouth at the end of every lunch.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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