Feel Sharper After Coffee? It Can Actually Make You Smarter — Here's How

Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive drug on the planet.

Contributing Writer
​Someone holds a cup of coffee and looks at a tablet.

Someone holds a cup of coffee and looks at a tablet.

Your morning cup of coffee wakes you up, but does it also make you smarter? The answer is complicated, but the science bears out what we all suspect: you think better after that first cup.

Which is, actually, a little scary. Far too many of us reach for that cup while sleep-deprived — coffee is great and all, but maybe we should all try to also just get a little more sleep? This plea for normalizing nap times aside, the science of coffee and cognition is fascinating.

I rarely sit down to any task, and certainly not to this series, without making a cup of coffee. It’s part of my routine. I tell myself it helps me focus and create, but does coffee really make me work better? Or is it just a superstitious gesture, a rabbit’s foot in a mug?

The science backs me up and it says, "better living through chemistry!"

Coffee and cognition

By most accounts, caffeine, largely delivered through coffee, is the most consumed psychoactive drug on the planet. Caffeine isn’t alone in the complex mix that is a good cup of coffee and it’s the combination of this stimulant with chlorogenic and caffeic acids, and likely a broader suite of antioxidants, that boosts our brains.

On the whole, studies have linked coffee consumption to improved reaction and learning times, alertness, and memory. Some studies were more cautious, but drinking coffee is consistently linked to reduced cognitive decline with aging and better recovery from neurological injury. Whether or not coffee will make you smarter right now, that hot cup of love will keep you sharper for longer and could help you bounce back from injury.

How does coffee make you smarter?

Caffeine is a major player. Remember that caffeine wakes us up by mimicking adenosine, a natural neurotransmitter. Caffeine possibly helps us think better as we age by normalizing levels of that chemical messenger or its receptor that otherwise decline with age.

It’s not just caffeine

Caffeine can’t be the whole story, though, because some studies have found similar neuroprotective effects from decaf coffee.

Coffee is relatively rich in antioxidants, including chlorogenic and caffeic acid, a suite of molecules that “scrub” cells of dangerous metabolic waste products. The broad protective effects of coffee drinking are likely driven by a combination of factors around the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative stress abilities of all of these molecules in our neurons and brains. The effects seem to include reducing the formation of plaques in our brain, possibly explaining why coffee consumption is associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.

Coffee changes how you think

Medical imaging MRI studies have shown that habitual coffee drinking actually alters how our brains work. Coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers have different patterns of brain activity with the imbibers having more efficient patterns. And simply drinking coffee can change the patterns of abstainers. There is hope for the Coffee Resistors, yet.

Not all effects are positive

But, as with all things coffee-related, not all studies agree and some studies suggest that coffee can also impair our thinking or at least judgment.

One large-scale study in the UK found that coffee actually impeded good decision-making, but increased reaction times. In other words, coffee drinkers could make bad decisions faster. Which actually feels pretty accurate.

Similarly, another study linked coffee drinking to reckless shopping habits. Those who imbibed tended to spend more and spend more on frivolous impulse buys. This also feels pretty accurate, says the guy with dozens of coffee makers.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly to most coffee drinkers, coffee is also associated with higher levels of stress and anxiety. This effect even holds up in animal model studies. Caffeinated mice are anxious mice.

One study in mice gives a different perspective on this connection between caffeine and stress. In this study, the researchers clearly showed that caffeine improved how the mice reacted to chronic stress. The mice were still anxious, as mice go, but were better able to handle new stress and showed less 'helpless' behaviour. This point also rings true. Sure, that morning up may leave you a bit wired, but definitely feeling better able to handle what the day is going to throw at you.

Drugs work

That’s it. That's the punch line. Caffeine, and the suite of antioxidants in the wondrous brew that we call coffee, are all drugs that we actively and happily consume and our bodies respond to them. All things considered, science and experience agree, that morning cup does more than just wake you up and clear out the cobwebs.

Thomas Merritt
Contributing Writer
Thomas Merritt is a contributing writer for MTL Blog.
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