Of coffee and cognition

Despite staying awake until midnight Seattle time the past two nights, my body continues to insist on wakefulness five hours later, at what would be my usual 8 a.m. wake-up time. This has been very convenient from the perspective of making my early-morning conference events, but not from the perspective of staying awake and alert throughout a day of scientific talks. So is it time to take advantage of the many coffeeshops in the convention hall?

I have often wondered if caffeine, whether it’s first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon, really does anything to keep me awake or alert. Everyone has a different level of sensitivity to any given drug, and my mother always said that caffeine did nothing to her. Could it be that I had inherited some set of genes that made coffee nothing but a bitterly dark drink? Perhaps I was subject to the placebo effect – the famous finding that “sugar pills” and other fake drugs can actually help people get better, if people believe that they’re real, thanks to some amazing powers of positive thinking. Decaf might wake you up just as well as full-strength coffee, in other words, as long as you don’t know it’s decaf.

The good news for all those coffee addicts out there is that caffeine does have cognitive benefits. Caffeine is actually powerful enough to improve your performance even when you’ve been told it will hurt (at least if you’re a regular coffee drinker). My students have recently read and critiqued an article showing that caffeine can prevent cognitive decline from morning to afternoon as people get tired (for elderly morning people, that is). So caffeine doesn’t just keep you awake but foggy; it can actually help your mind.

The good news for me is that although there is no easy test for my sensitivity to caffeine – and I’m not willing to go to the trouble of setting up some carefully controlled double-blind study so I can know for sure – my awareness of the placebo possibility probably isn’t hurting me. Placebos seem to work even if you are told they are a placebo, and here I am only considering the possibility, not faced with a doctor’s assertion that my large mocha is doing me no good at all.

If you’re curious exactly how coffee works, by the way, Lifehacker has all the details for you. Or if you prefer your lessons short, snarky and colorful, you can check out The Oatmeal’s 15 Things Worth Knowing About Caffeine. As for me, now that I’ve drained my large raspberry mocha, I’m ready to tackle the conference again.

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