Caffeine buzz is possible without drinking coffee
Smelling coffee could trigger similar reactions in the brain to physically drinking a cup, according to new research.
Researchers from Monash University and the University of Toronto explored the link between coffee and arousal to see if the brain’s exposure to stimuli could deliver the same cognitive benefits as a caffeine buzz. They found the coffee placebo effect can heighten arousal, ambition and focus in regular drinkers without them actually consuming the beverage.
“As long as individuals see a connection between coffee and arousal, whatever its origin may be, mere exposure to coffee-related cues might trigger arousal in and of themselves without ingesting any form of caffeine,” explained Dr Eugene Chan, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Monash Business School.
“Smelling coffee gives rise to the beverage’s psychoactive, arousing effects. This is because the brains of habitual coffee consumers are conditioned to respond to coffee in certain ways, as per the prominent Pavlov’s dog theory.
“So walking past your favourite cafe, smelling the odours of coffee grounds or even witnessing coffee-related cues in the form of advertising can trigger the chemical receptors in our body enough for us to obtain the same arousal sensations without consumption.”
Instead of looking at the physiological effects of consuming coffee, the study focused on a psychological effect called ‘mental construal’ which determines how individuals think and process information, whether they focus on narrow details or the bigger picture.
In four experiments, 871 participants from Western and Eastern cultures were exposed to coffee- and tea-related cues that would make them think of coffee without ingesting it. For example, one study asked participants to come up with advertising slogans for coffee or tea, while another required them to mock-up news stories about the health benefits of drinking coffee or tea. Their arousal levels and heart rates were monitored throughout the studies.
Coffee cues increased their alertness, energy levels and heart rate, and made them think narrowly.
In Western countries, coffee was associated with greater arousal than tea, and the cognitive-altering effects of coffee were more prevalent compared to Eastern countries.
“This study could even help to explain how drinking decaffeinated coffee can produce faster reaction times on tasks. Perhaps the mental association between coffee and arousal is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even where there’s no caffeine ingestion physiologically,” said Dr Chan.
“This adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that the foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure — mere exposure to, or reminders of them, affect how we think.”
The study was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
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