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I’ve Bean Thinking: What are the Effects of Coffee on Memory?

Nowadays, with over 400 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks. The sweet aroma of ground beans is familiar to any time of the day. Many people look forward to starting off their morning, sipping the warm liquid out of their favorite beach themed mug. Teenagers gather in cafes with friends and feel quite sophisticated with a cup of coffee. Every cup is unique and people take pride in choosing how they will garnish their brew. Some stir in milk and sugar until the coffee is the perfect shade of java. Others prefer to add cream and sprinkle cinnamon on top. Regardless, crafting a cup of coffee is therapeutic and gives people a sense of control over how their day will span.

Coffee is becoming more accessible than ever before. Shops and coffee carts such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons, and Second Cup have taken over every street corner, shopping mall, airport, and hotel. This drink is also rather cheap, so some restaurants such as McDonald’s give it out for free. Along with all of its availability, many people consume coffee to help them stay awake. In fact, caffeine is also found in soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, and certain medicines. Although there is research being conducted on the caffeine found in these concoctions, the effects of the caffeine found in coffee seem more relevant for a large group of people drinking it: students. Students rely on the caffeine in this beverage to help them study and complete tasks for school. However, the effects of the caffeine in coffee on memory and effective studying are controversial.

Coffee does have several distinct benefits, despite its many drawbacks. The 17th century gave rise to a number of coffee houses called “Penny Universities” where people could buy a cup of coffee for a penny and it made them have intellectually stimulating conversations. In later years, it was discovered that the caffeine in coffee actually acts as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system. Depending on the level of intake, it can improve mental performance, especially alertness, attention and concentration which can lead to more efficient studying.

A study done at John Hopkins University concluded that 200-milligrams of coffee a day can enhance detailed memory. The research shows that caffeine enhances certain memories at least up to 24 hours after it is consumed. Participants of the study were given a 200-milligram caffeine tablet before studying a series of images. The next day, the group was tested on its ability to recognize images from the previous day’s study session. The participants were able to recognize the images and the distinct differences in pictures that were not identical. Clearly, the caffeine led to a deep level of memory retention that had a positive effect on remembering specific details.

Although these arguments do bear some merit, can the caffeine in coffee have negative side effects that could lead to a lack of focus? There are instances where professionals who rely on coffee to keep them awake actually fall asleep at work because they are substituting sleep for caffeine. In one case, there was an anesthetist who nodded off during an emergency caesarian section. Mr. Cowen’s head was slumped on his chest and he did not wake up when the surgeon asked him to adjust the patient’s anesthesia. There are similar circumstances where doctors are not giving patients their full attention due to a lack of sleep and a dependence on coffee. A study conducted in a hospital in Switzerland evaluated doctors to see how much coffee they consumed. It was concluded that although there were substantial variations between specialties, surgeons were drinking notably more coffee than other physicians. Do we really want to risk having surgeons fall asleep with scalpels inches from our bodies?

While students will continue to indulge in coffee to stay awake, it could be argued that they should avoid this beverage if they want to retain more information and be more efficient. Coffee has been proven to have negative effects on short-term memory. In a study at Cambridge University, caffeine subjects recalled fewer words than did control subjects. Certainly, the ability to remember specific detail is an important skill, however, the precision is irrelevant when the basic knowledge is lacking. Likewise, study subjects only developed this skill when they consumed 200-milligrams of caffeine; the equivalent of one small cup of coffee. However, the average American drinks at least 2.1 cups of coffee daily, approximately 420-milligrams. Consuming amounts greater than 500 or 600-milligrams a day causes shakiness. Would we not all agree that shaking hands might disrupt our studying?

Although it has been argued that coffee improves alertness, attention, and concentration, there is evidence to oppose this claim. Caffeine does initially stimulate our bodies to produce more adrenaline and dopamine than usual. These hormones contribute to the energy and positive mood that are essential to be motivated to get work done. However, when these chemicals begin to leave the system, there can be an experience of fading energy and a drop in mood. This dreaded caffeine crash could inevitably result in a lack of concentration and an inability to retain information. While it is true that coffee can keep students awake, there comes a point where it can no longer replace sleep. Where we can all concede that coffee keeps us up at night, we are not all aware that it takes eight hours for our bodies to process and eliminate the caffeine from just one cup. Therefore, students who consume coffee at night are at risk of losing even more sleep and potentially inhibiting their next day of studying. Exercise, listening to music, drinking ice cold water, and aiming for a full night of sleep are some examples of more effective ways for students to stay awake and study more efficiently.

The benefits of avoiding coffee while studying greatly outweigh the disadvantages. Students should stop drinking the caffeine in this drink, but this scenario is unlikely. With a myriad of other healthier options available, there is no reason why students should rely on coffee to complete tasks for school. For example, drinking water is a great substitute for coffee because it gives the brain electrical energy to perform all brain functions, including thought and memory processes. Since drinking water and brain function are integrally linked, lack of water to the brain can cause numerous symptoms including problems with focus, memory, brain fatigue, as well as headaches, sleep issues, anger, and depression. When students replace water with coffee, they have a smaller reserve of water, so they cannot think as fast, be as focused or experience the same clarity and creativity as when they drink water.

If students need a stimulant to stay awake they should begin to think what is the cause for them to rely on caffeine.  Perhaps they are simply disorganized or spending too much time procrastinating when they could get their work done sooner. Avoiding coffee could save the annoyance of trembling hands and pessimistic mood swings while trying to focus. It can also improve sleep patterns which in turn can lead to more enhanced memory retention and efficiency when trying to get work done.

Works Cited


Editor: Maria ‘Stefi’ Ticsa