Just looking at coffee can make you more alert

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Are you a sleep deprived mama who just discovered that - GASP -  you're out of coffee?

Do you have a self-imposed no-coffee-after-3pm rule because it keeps you up at night?

Have you already consumed your coffee quota and it's only 8:57am?

Well, science has your back.

A new Canadian study, published in Consciousness and Cognitionfound that simple exposure to things that remind you of coffee can make you more alert. 

"People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it," says lead author Associate Professor Sam Maglio, who wanted to understand the "psychological meaning" of the beloved beverage.

To examine this, he and his colleagues exposed a range of participants from both Western and Eastern cultures to coffee- and tea-related cues and looked at the impact of this on factors including alertness and attentiveness or what psychologists term "arousal". Arousal  in this context refers to how specific areas of the brain are stimulated into a state of being "alert awake and attentive" - exactly how we feel when we down that latte of a morning.

But can simply priming us to think about coffee stimulate the brain, too?

The short answer is: yes.


Maglio and his team found that those exposed to coffee cues perceived time as shorter and thought in more concrete, precise terms.

"People who experience physiological arousal -  again, in this case as the result of priming and not drinking coffee itself  - see the world in more specific, detailed terms," Maglio says. "This has a number of implications for how people process information and make judgments and decisions."

Interestingly, the effect wasn't as strong in those from Eastern cultures.

"In North America we have this image of a prototypical executive rushing off to an important meeting with a triple espresso in their hand. There's this connection between drinking caffeine and arousal that may not exist in other cultures," Maglio says.

Discussing their findings, the authors note that given "coffee shops abound" simply walking past a café might be enough to perk one up.

"Perhaps the mental association between "coffee" and" arousal" is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even when there is no caffeine ingestion physiologically," they write. "In other words, our findings suggest that the arousal from drinking coffee (and potentially other caffeinated beverages) might arise not purely from physiological processes but also from psychological processes."

According to the team, their results might also explain why studies have found that even those who know they're drinking decaffeinated coffee produce faster reaction times on certain tasks. 

"The  foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply providing nutrition or pleasure," the authors note. "Mere exposure to or reminders of them can affect how we think."

So there you go. Feeling tired? Simply browse that coffee hashtag on Instagram for a quick hit.

It's worth a try.