New Study Shows How To Get The Brain Boost From Coffee Without Taking A Sip

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.

Image by ALLIE LEHMAN / Death to the stock photo

If you're anything like me, you have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with coffee. You love the way it makes you feel (at least that initial rush of energy and mental clarity that follows your first few sips), but you're not a huge fan of how reliant you've become on it. For a while there, I was requiring two to three cups of coffee in the morning to feel like a normal functioning human being. But when it started triggering my anxiety (caffeine can promote the release of cortisol, FYI), I had to scale back. The good news: New research suggests we might be able to get some of the brain-boosting benefits of java without actually drinking it.

In a new study published in Consciousness and Cognition, researchers found putting study participants in a position where they were forced to think about coffee—having them brainstorm names for a new coffee brand, for example—was enough to stimulate physiological arousal in the body and change the way people think and feel. This allowed them to reap the focus-enhancing effects of coffee without consuming it.

Specifically, the researchers found this heightened arousal allowed participants to see the world with more specificity and detail. Meaning, it made them mentally sharper. But how?

Researchers think it has a lot to do with the fact that many of us, especially in the U.S., associate coffee with productivity and alertness. "We see this very much as a priming effect, where one idea activates others because of associations we've forged in our heads," Sam Maglio, study co-author and associate professor at the University of Toronto, told mbg. "Triggering that initial idea creates a cascade of [changes]—in this case, just thinking about coffee creates a boost."

Additionally, the study authors found that thinking about coffee increased participants' heart rates. "These changes in the body presumably account for the changes we saw in people's behaviors, like expecting that things would happen sooner and seeing the world through a more detailed, specific lens," says Maglio.

But this isn't the only study to suggest we can harness the brain-boosting powers of coffee without actually taking a sip. Last year, another study found that the smell of coffee was enough to boost analytical reasoning skills. Undergraduate students who were exposed to an ambient coffee aroma actually scored higher on a set of 10 algebra problems than students who weren't exposed to the scent. And an older study from 2008 found that sleep-deprived rats who merely smelled coffee had genes activated in their brains that eased fatigue-related stress.

The take-away? Maybe we don't actually need to drink quite as much coffee as we thought to reap the mental rewards. While researchers still have a lot to learn about these connections, I'll personally be spending a few extra minutes in the morning enjoying my java's freshly brewed scent before I start sipping.

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