How waking up and smelling the coffee leaves you full of beans
Coffee cues on their own increase alertness and energy in aficionados (and addicts)
Want to cut back on your espresso bill but still be sharp enough to meet your deadlines? Instead of hitting the plunger, stroll past a coffee shop with a strong aroma to kickstart your day.
International research shows the brains of regular coffee drinkers are primed to respond to coffee cues such as smells, sounds and images. It’s the placebo effect in action.
“The stimuli increased their alertness, energy levels, heart rate, and made them think narrowly,” said Dr Eugene Chan, senior lecturer in marketing at Monash Business School in Australia.
This may sound too good to be true, but it’s not just a marketing spin: the study was conducted among 871 people from Western and Eastern cultures in four experiments designed to “make them think of the substance” without actually consuming it.
“The results showed that priming people with coffee cues – exposing them to images and other stimuli like smells and sounds associated with coffee – increased their alertness, energy levels, heart rate, and made them think narrowly,” Chan said.
The “cognitive-altering effects” were more prevalent in participants from the West, where coffee is more popular, as well as associated with energy, focus and ambition.
“This study could even help to explain how drinking decaffeinated coffee can produce faster reaction times on tasks,” he said.
“Perhaps the mental association between coffee and arousal is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even where there’s no caffeine ingestion physiologically.”
The arousal with coffee was greater than with tea.
Chan said: “Smelling coffee gives rise to the beverage’s psychoactive, arousing effects. This is because the brains of habitual coffee consumers are conditioned to respond to coffee in certain ways, as per the prominent Pavlov’s dog theory.
“So walking past your favourite café, smelling the odours of coffee grounds or even witnessing coffee-related cues in the form of advertising can trigger the chemical receptors in our body enough for us to obtain the same arousal sensations without consumption.”
In one experiment, for example, participants had to come up with advertising slogans for coffee or tea, and their arousal levels and heart rates were monitored by scientists. In another, they had to write “mock-up news stories about the health benefits” of these beverages.
Researchers honed in on a psychological effect (mental construal) that shaped how individuals thought and analysed information: focusing on narrow details or the bigger picture.
But you may still want to drink your favourite brew to live longer, particularly if you look at the results of a major report recently on coffee and longevity.
The report from the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee found that drinking three to six cups a day reduced the risk of “all-cause mortality” by 17%.
Chan said: “This adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that the foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure – mere exposure to, or reminders of them, affect how we think.”
Coffee habits have become entrenched among South Africans, with sales booming in the last five years. Euromonitor estimated local sales were R2.5bn in 2014 and were expected to reach R3.5bn this year.