Many of us rely on coffee to help us get going in the morning or to perk up a sluggish workday. But recent research reveals psychological effects that go far beyond boosting alertness…
Caffeine in coffee stimulates the central nervous system. It heightens awareness and improves concentration and problem-solving. And if you ‘use’ caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, to help you feel more alert for an exam, there is evidence to suggest that it will be beneficial. Caffeine led to a “striking improvement” on memory tests administered in the early morning, which is typically a “low” point for young adults, according to a study conducted on university students. The team reports that a separate group of participants who were asked to engage in physical activity did not exhibit this benefit, suggesting that it is due to a direct effect on memory rather than an increase in general arousal.
Additionally, research published last year expanded the already extensive list of visual processing benefits. The team discovered that caffeine improved people’s ability to detect moving targets, which could mean reacting faster to anything from a pedestrian crossing the street to a football hurtling toward you during a game of five-a-side.
The negative side
According to a study published earlier this year, consuming coffee prior to shopping can increase the likelihood of making impulsive purchases. The team discovered that people who consumed just one espresso before entering a store spent 50% more money than those who had consumed decaf coffee or water. In addition, they were more likely to choose ‘high hedonic’ items, such as buttery foods or relaxing products, over practical items. Why? Caffeine consumers reported feeling more energized (due, no doubt, to a misunderstanding of a caffeine-induced faster heart rate as ‘excitement’), and when we are energized, we tend to be more impulsive.
Side that is neither up nor down
Caffeine improves a wide range of cognitive abilities, but not creativity. Darya Zabelina and colleagues at the University of Arkansas administered a 200mg caffeine pill (equivalent to one cup of strong coffee) or a placebo, followed by a battery of tests.
As anticipated, those with caffeine in their systems performed better on a problem-solving task that required them to come up with a fourth word that could connect three given words (such as “cheese” for cottage, swiss, and cake). The team also evaluated the participants’ creativity with a test of divergent thinking. Participants were required to use simple symbols as the basis for a more complex drawing, and to come up with as many uses as possible for a commonplace object, for instance. There was no difference between the two groups on these tests. Researchers hypothesize that this is due to the fact that creative thought is easier when the brain is less focused and more relaxed (which caffeine does not foster).