For millions of us, the day begins with at least one cup of coffee to jump-start our brains into productivity. We think clearer, move faster, and interact with coworkers (also drinking coffee) like we’re meant to work together – at least for a little while.
What if we could benefit from some of those effects by simply experiencing cues that make us think of coffee? That’s the topic of a new study, the latest in the ongoing scientific fascination with our favorite legal drug.
“People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it,” said lead author Sam Maglio, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually drank coffee.”
The “arousal” in this case is a well-studied dynamic in which specific brain areas are activated by exposure to stimuli. Drinking coffee delivers a dose of caffeine that chemically arouses the brain into a state of alertness, but we also know that non-chemical cues, anything from certain colors to sounds to smells, can trigger shades of the effect.
To test the arousal potential of coffee without actually drinking it, the researchers conducted four experiments in which they exposed people from both western and eastern cultures to coffee and tea-related cues that would make them think of the substance without ingesting it.
The researchers were specifically interested in an effect known in psychology as “mental construal,” the degree to which we think in more or less concrete and specific terms. In an alert state of mind, the brain grasps whatever problems we’re facing more concretely – we get to the details that matter the most faster, allowing us to focus on solutions.
Across the experiments, the researchers say they found evidence that priming people with coffee cues—exposing them to images and other stimuli that conjured thoughts about coffee—did increase their mental construal, and also made them perceive time as shorter. An hour seemed to zip by faster with coffee on the mind.
The effects didn’t hold up as well for people from eastern cultures, in which the devotion to coffee isn’t as strong as in the west.
These results line up well with those from another recent study finding that simply smelling coffee increases alertness and sharpens thinking. In that study, a group of students taking the math section of the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) were exposed to coffee aroma. Compared to test-takers who didn’t smell coffee, the coffee group ended up with significantly higher test scores. They also reported greater expectations of doing well on the test while taking it, suggesting that the coffee aroma was triggering an ongoing uplifting effect throughout the test session.
All of these triggered effects likely tie back to the chemical effect of drinking coffee – our brains are “conditioned” to respond to coffee in certain ways (think of Pavlov’s famous dogs), so even brief exposure to coffee cues triggers the chemical-response pattern. These cues can’t deliver nearly the same level of effect as drinking coffee, but it seems we can experience flavors of it.
One useful takeaway from these studies could be to experiment with different ways of benefiting from coffee during the day without drinking it after the morning cup. Keeping coffee beans handy to sniff for a quick alertness boost, for example. Since we know that drinking caffeinated coffee later in the day can disrupt sleep, getting some of its benefits without continuously drinking it sounds like an idea worth trying.