Nutrition

Simply seeing reminders of coffee can perk up the brain

A new study shows that just seeing something that reminds people of coffee can result in a more alert and attentive mind.


Even looking at a coffee cup may be enough to perk up the mind, suggests a new study.

Many people turn to coffee for a quick morning pick-me-up, as its caffeine content is well-known for its stimulating nature.

Researchers from the University of Toronto wanted to see whether exposure to items that remind people of coffee had any psychological effects. As it turns out, the answer is yes.

Sam Maglio, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management, both in Ontario, Canada, wanted to explore coffee and its psychological effects, if there were any to be found. The study’s results appear in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

“We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal, such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually [drunk] coffee,” Maglio explains.

Psychological arousal is a term that describes parts of the brain getting activated into a state of alertness and attentiveness. This can result from many factors, involving neurotransmitters in the brain, emotional states, or caffeinated beverages, such as coffee.

Coffee and psychological arousal

This research directly examined the psychological effect of priming, in which small cues can influence the thoughts and behavior of people exposed to them. Specifically, the researchers wanted to look at how coffee-related cues can lead to psychological arousal.

The team conducted four separate studies to see how participants reacted to coffee- and tea-related cues. They discovered that those exposed to coffee-related cues experienced interesting psychological benefits, including thinking in more precise terms and feeling that time went by faster.

They used participants from Eastern and Western cultures for these studies, and they did discover a difference between the two populations. The researchers found that this effect was weaker in those who grew up in Eastern cultures, which Maglio surmises may be due to having lived in an environment where coffee was not quite as commonplace.

Caffeine and coffee

Caffeine is a naturally-occurring stimulant that is found in several different types of plants. These plants are used to create coffee, tea, and chocolate. Manufacturers can also add synthetic caffeine to other products, and it often shows up in energy drinks, sodas, and some types of food.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which boosts energy and can make a person feel more awake and alert. Consumers of caffeine can feel the effects for around 4–6 hours.

Too much caffeine can be a problem, as it can result in insomnia, shakiness, dizziness, headaches, and rapid or abnormal heart rhythm. Also, some people tend to be more sensitive to the effects and must be careful to avoid consuming too much.

Psychology and potential marketing efforts

Coffee packs a lot of caffeine into a small package, and its effects are well-recognized. The drink itself is such a pervasive image in Western culture, and it is interesting that simply viewing something that reminds someone of coffee could potentially have similar psychological effects as the drink itself.

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

This type of research can have impacts when it comes to understanding consumer-related behaviors, and it could influence marketing efforts in the future.

Maglio notes that the next steps for this kind of research would expand on associations that people have with different foods and drinks and how that affects them psychologically.

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