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STUDY: Simply Thinking About Coffee Gives Your Brain a Boost

For millions of us, the day begins with at least one cup of coffee to jump-start our brains into productivity. We think clearer, move faster, and interact with coworkers (also drinking coffee) like we’re meant to work together – at least for a little while.

What if we could benefit from some of those effects by simply experiencing cues that make us think of coffee? That’s the topic of a new study, the latest in the ongoing scientific fascination with our favorite legal drug.

“People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it,” said lead author Sam Maglio, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “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 drank coffee.”

The “arousal” in this case is a well-studied dynamic in which specific brain areas are activated by exposure to stimuli. Drinking coffee delivers a dose of caffeine that chemically arouses the brain into a state of alertness, but we also know that non-chemical cues, anything from certain colors to sounds to smells, can trigger shades of the effect.

To test the arousal potential of coffee without actually drinking it, the researchers conducted four experiments in which they exposed people from both western and eastern cultures to coffee and tea-related cues that would make them think of the substance without ingesting it.

Across the experiments, the researchers say they found evidence that priming people with coffee cues—exposing them to images and other stimuli that conjured thoughts about coffee—did increase their mental construal, and also made them perceive time as shorter. An hour seemed to zip by faster with coffee on the mind.

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