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Caffeine and Me

As a college student, I loved coffee, especially Peet’s Coffee. I was a two or three cups of coffee a day kind of gal. So naturally, as the Resident Assistant dorm mom, I invited Peets over to my dorm to host a coffee tasting. They arrived at 6 pm with two wagons full of steaming hot dispensers. Twelve different coffee varieties in all – Major Dickason’s, Mocca-Java, Sumatra, Colombian, dark vs light French roasts, blends vs single source – lined up like candy jars on the shelf, just begging to be devoured.

There was a fifteen minute lecture about coffee from bean to brew. Did you know that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia with a modern day growing belt encircling the equator? Or that Alfred Peet was the one who taught the founders of Starbucks how to roast coffee in 1971 and supplied them with beans for their first two years? Neither did I.

Then the tasting! Oh joy. I sampled them all in little disposable tasting cups one by one. I narrowed my list of favorites down to my top three, and had a side by side tasting of those. (I am a scientist after all!) Then, I finished with a final cup of my favorite, Major Dickason’s, topped with a splash of cream and the barest hint of sugar. It was the perfect dessert.

By the time I offered my deepest thanks to Peet’s for coming out to our dorm, my hands were shaking. I had completely lost count of how many little cups of caffeine I had consumed. Uh oh. Soon my legs were trembling uncontrollably. Within the hour, I felt nauseous. My friends and I went to the movies but I spent most of the evening in the theater bathroom alternating between peeing and feeling sick, never quite throwing up. When we got home, I tossed and turned in bed all night, not sleeping a wink.

The next morning, much to my sleep-deprived horror, the smell of coffee turned my stomach over in disgust. I had developed a conditioned taste aversion – a learned association between the taste of a specific food or beverage and illness. My body now thought of coffee as ‘that thing that almost poisoned me.’ My love turned to hate. I tried to drink a cup (mind over matter right?) but literally could not get the cup to my mouth without my stomach violently rebelling and my brain screaming NO!

I switched to tea.

Humankind’s co-dependent attachment to caffeine

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants which contains a full section on caffeine. He argues that the evolutionary strategy of the coffee and tea plant is essentially one of human servitude. The tea and coffee plants have produced a psychoactive chemical that makes those of us who drink its nectar more awake and industrious. In response, we “allotted it more than 27 million acres of new habitat, assigned 25 million humans to carefully tend it, and bid up its price until it became one of the most precious crops on earth… by now [we] can barely get out of bed without their help.”

The other part of his argument that really struck me was how caffeine impacts the brain. (What can I say? I’m a neuroscientist so no surprise there!) He shares the work of Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist from UC Berkeley who makes the fascinating argument that we possess two distinct forms of attention. There’s spotlight attention, which focuses on a single problem or task, and lantern attention which illuminates every piece of furniture and doo dad in the room.

For instance, consider my fabulous three-year old niece who can’t seem to walk the path to the parking lot without becoming enchanted by every moss covered stick, round pebble, or curved blade of grass she passes. Gopnik studies the amazing lantern attention in her that is uniquely designed to explore, learn, and change. The entire landscape is illuminated so she sees and wants to engage with everything.

And then there’s me. Focused. My spotlight attention is acutely aware of schedules and impatient husbands, so it’s awfully frustrating to spend an hour just walking my niece down the path to the car. Children’s brains, with their underdeveloped frontal cortex, haven’t mastered inhibitory control over their lantern attention. My adult brain can.

Sometimes. Usually.

After staring at my computer for too long, my brain’s procrastination monkey turns the spotlight off. Suddenly my lantern attention, the only kind of attention left, illuminates all the easy and fun distractions in my peripheral vision off to the side of the work I’m supposed to be doing. The black hole of Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, NPR, messages, and online shopping beckons.

Sometimes, when the procrastination monkey arrives, I head to the kitchen and make myself a cup of black tea in the afternoon even though I know it will make it harder for me to sleep at night. Why? Caffeine overrides the procrastination monkey and turns spotlight attention back on. Even when my brain is saying it needs a break, and wants to explore and wander like a three-year old, I can force it to comply with a cup of caffeine. (Though be cautious... too much caffeine and you supercharge the procrastination monkey too!)

How does it do this? Caffeine plugs up adenosine receptors in the brain. (There are other actions too, but this is the important one for this conversation.)

Adenosine is a funny little neuromodulator. It’s not a classic neurotransmitter — it’s not released from synapses and doesn’t open ion channels. Instead, it fine tunes the action of lots of other neurotransmitters all over the brain. In the sleep centers of the brain, adenosine gradually rises throughout the day making you more and more sleepy until you finally call it quits and head to bed. When caffeine binds to the adenosine receptor, it prevents adenosine from doing its job, artificially making you feel more awake.

Caffeine does the same to cognition and memory. Throughout the day, adenosine gradually accumulates in the hippocampus and cortex (your brain’s memory, learning, and problem solving centers), slowly suppressing your cognitive abilities. Adenosine dims your spotlight attention. Caffeine reverses that by blocking adenosine receptors. Soon, your ability to focus, remember, and process information speeds back up again.

And caffeine makes you feel good but more anxious through its interactions with the dopamine system. Dopamine draws your attention towards life’s pleasures, but also life’s pains and threats. As adenosine accumulates throughout the day, it blocks dopamine receptors, dulling your appreciation of both pleasure and pain. Caffeine blocks the blocker, and you once again feel the full impact of the good things and the full worry about the bad things in life.

What’s the point

Unlike most of my blogs, I don’t have a conclusive piece of advice to share. Should you drink coffee, tea or neither? Should you increase or decrease your caffeine intake? Is caffeine good or bad for you? For humankind? For the planet? There are no clear answers.

Michael Pollan’s book made me think about my caffeine consumption in new ways and observe the use (and non-use) of coffee in my household with greater awareness.

For instance, my teenaged son is getting sleepier and sleepier in the mornings. Typical teenager. It was around his age that I started drinking coffee in the mornings heaped with cream and sugar. Some of his friends drink coffee regularly. Is this a good thing? I would call CPS on anyone giving heroin or methamphetamine to a child. As a principal, I actively campaigned to keep nicotine off our school campus. What’s the difference with caffeine? I don’t have an answer, but I also haven’t offered my son a cup of coffee to help him perk up in the mornings.

Or consider that, last week, I decided to try coffee again for the first time in over 25 years. The founder of a local coffee shop, Theory Coffee, even recommended a specific brew to try given my taste aversion. Lo and beyond, my stomach didn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum. My lip didn’t curl with disgust. Hooray! My simple cup of drip coffee tasted of honey and fruit, light, and slightly nutty. But soon my leg was jittering under the table, unaccustomed to coffee’s doubly potent dose of caffeine (an average 95 mg in a cup of coffee versus 47 mg in black tea). I left the coffee shop unable to contain a surge of spotlight attention driven productivity, tinged with a hint of anxiety. Sitting in my car, I let loose with a string of rapid fire phone calls and messages until that strange irrepressible energy began to ebb.

I’ve decided to stick with tea.

If ever you see me on Zoom, you’ll likely see me nurturing a mug of tea – chai or Earl Grey in the mornings, chamomile-mint or rooibos-cocoa in the afternoons, with a green or white tea blend now and then to spice things up. I have a little ritual: to slowly and intentionally smell the magical aroma that emerges from my mug just as I add the hot water. And with my first sip, I’ll close my eyes and let the taste linger on my tongue for a long breath before I swallow. It’s not the elaborate ritual of a formal Japanese tea ceremony which turns the preparation, serving, and drinking of tea into a meditative artform, but it does offer a moment of mindful respite and quiet presence in the midst of a busy, lightly caffeine fueled day.

Here’s to you, caffeine. To us. For better. For worse. For richer. For poorer. In sickness and in health. Until death do us part.

Read More

This is a fantastic five minute TED Ed video that explains caffeine’s effect on your body and mind.

To learn more about Alison Gopnik’s work on spotlight versus lantern attention, try this article in Scientific American.

And Michael Pollan’s book, This is Your Mind on Plants, is utterly fascinating. In addition to caffeine, he looks at opium and mescaline through a historical, biological, and personal perspective.

Going Further

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