Wake Up and Smell the Truth about Coffee

A mid-shift cup of joe may help keep you focused and alert—or maybe not, according to conflicting studies.

June 9, 2010

Dead alert: New research calls caffeine's pick-me-up power into question.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Drink a cup of coffee, and you'll soon know how caffeine affects you. You may feel anxious, hyper-energized, or absolutely no different at all. But some people rely on it to get them through their days. A new study of shift workers finds that a simple cup of coffee was enough to improve their focus and attention and get them back on track to finish their shifts. By contrast, other new research calls caffeine's famous effects on alertness into question.


THE DETAILS: In the first study, British researchers analyzed 13 studies published in the Cochrane Database, an online database of scientific research, looking at data on caffeine's effect on shift workers whose work times interrupt the body's natural circadian rhythms that control sleep. The studies included from six to 68 participants who'd received caffeine either through coffee or in capsule form, and found that the chemical improved reasoning, memory, orientation, attention, and perception.

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The biggest improvements were in memory, which saw a doubling in improvement, and concept formation and reasoning, which improved an average of 60 percent. Attention improved 45 percent, and perception 23 percent, on average. But shortly after the Cochrane study was published, a study published in the Abstract of Neuropsychopharmacology found that coffee, while increasing anxiety, does nothing to improve alertness if you're not a regular coffee drinker. That study looked at the effects of coffee on 162 people who didn't drink coffee regularly and 217 people who did. Those that were non-coffee-drinkers experienced heightened anxiety, with no improvements in focus and attention. The heavy coffee drinkers experienced no anxiety, and the coffee simply kept their attention levels normal.

WHAT IT MEANS: A strong cup of coffee could allow you get through those chaotic mornings when your mind just doesn't want to focus—or maybe not. The conflicting evidence may have more to do with psychological benefits than from actual physiological effects, says Gordon Logan, PhD, centennial professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. "There are two effects you can get from coffee and tea. One is the pharmacological affect—where you're going to get an increase in alertness for some period of time," he says. "Then there's the psychological effect. If you're having a cup of coffee, you have to do something to get that coffee—go to Starbucks or run to the coffeemaker." It's that disruption in what you're doing, and the need to change the scenery, that may actually help you calm down, refocus, and get on with your day. "The break may be more important than the coffee," he says.

If you don't like coffee, or you think it makes you jittery, there are other ways to improve your focus without relying on caffeine:

• Schedule everything. It may feel like we're bombarded with information and distractions, but Logan says that our brains are actually wired to handle a lot more information than we process on a daily basis. Nevertheless, he says, we still get interrupted, which is why knowing what you need to accomplish, so you don't get so distracted, can help you stay focused throughout the day. "It has a lot to do with time management," he says. "I work most effectively when I do just one thing at a time, so I arrange my life so that I can do just one thing at a time and everything else is secondary." He suggests scheduling time to complete important tasks, and then scheduling time for handling potential distractions, like answering emails and phone calls, so that you can complete the important tasks without interruption.

• Compartmentalize. One way that researchers in labs try to get their subjects to focus on one particular object in a group of objects is to highlight, it or draw arrows pointing to it, says Logan. And in day-to-day life, our minds create those same mental cues for other things we do. "For me, I do my writing at home in my study, where I won't be interrupted," he says. That setting is associated with writing, he says, so his brain doesn't wander to scheduling meetings or dealing with his students. That "partitioning" or compartmentalizing can help you keep your mind focused. If there are certain tasks you need to complete that require a lot of silence and mental focus, do those in places or during times you know you won't get interrupted. Your mind will start to associate those times or places with improved attention, and you'll be more likely to get things accomplished in an timely manner.

• Do one thing at a time. "There's abundant evidence in psychology that doing two things at once, like talking on phone while driving, has been shown to be really disruptive," he says. "Every time you shift, you have to clear your mind of things you were thinking of before your shift, and then start filling it with things that you need to think of after the shift." That leads to a cluttered mind, he says, and the clutter just gets worse as we age. Prioritize what you need to do, he suggests, so that you know what you're working on is the most important thing that needs to be done at the moment. You'll be less susceptible to distractions, and you'll think more clearly.