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Caffeine Boosts Memory—Really

A mug of coffee can help us commit memories for the long term.

It’s no secret that caffeine helps boost concentration skills in the short term. But, until recently, most scientists thought that caffeine offered little benefit for remembering information in the long term. A new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience challenges that assumption. In short, caffeine does enhance our memory for information learned a day earlier and, as with many things, moderation is the key—too little caffeine delivers no memory benefit but too much doesn’t give you much bang for your buck, either.

To study the impact of caffeine on memory, a group of researchers led by Daniel Borota at Johns Hopkins University invited subjects to take part in a memory test. People viewed pictures of common objects, like a picnic basket, a saxophone, or a four-leaf clover. Then, everyone received a caffeine pill or a placebo pill. Twenty-four hours later, people were asked to view some more pictures and state whether they had (a) seen the picture the day before, (b) had not seen it the day before, or (c) had seen a similar—but not identical—picture the day before. This last category is tricky because it requires you to accurately remember what you saw the day before and determine that a new item is similar (yet not identical) to what you originally viewed.

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What the researchers found was that people who took the caffeine pill instead of the placebo were good at not being tricked: They could tell that a new object was similar to one they saw the day before, but not exactly the same. These results suggest that caffeine helps people pack away information into memory so that they can call on it at a later point in time and use it to avoid getting confused.

In short, caffeine helped people commit information to mind.

So how much caffeine helps memory? And can there be too much of a good thing? The researchers repeated their experiment, varying the amount of caffeine subjects ingested—anywhere from 100 to 300 mg. It turned out that 100 mg was not enough to really provide memory benefits and there were diminishing returns at 300 mg; it wasn’t any better than a 200 mg dose. One 12 oz. cup of coffee is about 200 mg, which seemed to have the optimum memory-boosting effect.

While the question of why caffeine enhances memory has yet to be answered, it seems clear that it doesn’t just alter concentration skills in the short term. A moderate dose of caffeine taken after you study information you need to commit to mind can help you recall it later.

Next time you are trying to soak up information in a class or a meeting, a cup of coffee as a reward after you're dismissed may help you remember the details of what you heard.

 

For more on boosting memory and performance, check out my book “Choke

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Borota, D. et al. (2014). Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. Nature Neuroscience.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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