TORONTO — No morning joe, no problem. All you need is your imagination. That’s because simply thinking about coffee or looking at something that reminds you of a steaming-hot cup can incite a caffeine-like reaction in the brain, new research shows.
Researchers from the University of Toronto say that being exposed to things that stoke thoughts of drinking coffee can stimulate arousal in the brain and increase one’s alertness and attention similar to the way actually drinking a cup can. They examined a psychological effect called priming, in which subtle cues of something familiar can influence one’s thoughts and behavior.
“People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it,” says study co-author Sam Maglio, an expert on consumer behavior and an associate professor in the Department of Management at UT Scarborough, in a release. “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.”
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Maglio and his team recruited people from Western and Eastern cultures to participate in four related studies, comparing coffee and tea visual cues. Participants exposed to coffee cues perceived time as shorter and showed more concrete, precise thought patterns. The authors believe that the effects are the result of subjective and physiological arousal.
“People who experience physiological arousal – again, in this case as the result of priming and not drinking coffee itself – see the world in more specific, detailed terms,” says Maglio. “This has a number of implications for how people process information and make judgements and decisions.”
The effect was not as strong in participants from Eastern cultures. Maglio posits that the association between coffee and psychological arousal is weaker in cultures where the drink isn’t so mainstream.
“In North America we have this image of a prototypical executive rushing off to an important meeting with a triple espresso in their hand,” he says. “There’s this connection between drinking caffeine and arousal that may not exist in other cultures.”
The study was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.