Does caffeine help us to concentrate?
Many of us enjoy a coffee – be it a skinny macchiato, a flat white or a double espresso. But when we’re up against a tight schedule or we’re running late before that important meeting, we’re glad to admit we don’t need the coffee and are quite happy to skip it.
But recent research shows that skipping your coffee before a big meeting when you need to take in new information, is probably a bad idea. Of course, we know about the benefits (?) of the caffeine in making us more alert but the research suggests that it’s the craving you will experience will actually impair your ability to memorise new information.
55 regular coffee drinkers who drank at least one coffee per day and who at least ‘sometimes found themselves thinking about when they will get their next caffeine fix’, took part in a memory challenge. The participants were asked to learn 100 unrelated word pairs (e.g. POND-BOOK) and then were tested on their recall ability of the second word in each pair (given the first word). They were also tested on their recognition memory; selecting the correct second word for each pair from a multiple-choice list of options. All participants we asked to estimate before they started how well they would do on the memory tests.
But before the memory challenge began, half the participants were placed in a state of craving. Having refrained from coffee that day, they were given a cafetière of coffee and asked to pour, smell and look closely at the coffee – but not drink it. The other half of the group acted as controls; drinking coffee as usual earlier that day, but now pouring themselves water and imagining their favourite holiday.
The results showed that the control participants significantly outperformed the caffeine-craving participants on both recall and recognition memory. And the caffeine-craving participants were less able to judge the accuracy of their answers than the control participants; they were more overconfident in their upcoming performance.
Of course there was no baseline control group of non-coffee drinkers – and the sample size isn’t big enough from which to draw solid conclusions or results we can trust time and again. But, nonetheless, it’s a refreshing approach to experiment design – and helps run down the myth that coffee helps us to concentrate.
Palmer, M. A., Sauer, J. D., Ling, A. & Riza, J. (2017). Caffeine cravings impair memory and metacognition. Memory Vol. 25 , Iss. 9,2017.
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