Coffee Cup of the Mind

Contemplating coffee may influence how you think, even if the pot is empty.

Posted Apr 22, 2019

Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

People whose livelihoods and/or leisure activities demand focused attention have long depended on coffee to bolster their powers of concentration. French novelist Honoré de Balzac paid tribute to the role coffee played in his work by observing that “Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live,” and Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös once remarked that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” The indispensability of coffee to the mental focus required of artists, musicians, scientists, and mathematicians (not to mention teachers, parents, and crossword puzzle aficionados) is evident in the elaborate rituals that frequently attend the preparation and consumption of the beneficial brew. Beethoven meticulously counted out 60 coffee beans—no more, no less—to make his morning cup of joe, and Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard “Delightedly…seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.”

While the salutary effect that drinking a cup of coffee can have upon our powers of concentration is well documented, new research suggests that perhaps the preparatory rituals undertaken by coffee drinkers such as Beethoven and Kierkegaard can have us well on our way to sharper mental focus before we even take the first sip from our morning cup. The research suggested, in fact, that merely thinking about coffee may increase our attention levels, even if we don’t have ready access to a Starbucks or a Keurig machine.

Eugene Chan and Sam Maglio (from Monash University and the University of Toronto Scarborough respectively) conducted a series of experiments to explore the effect of coffee-related cues on arousal and, subsequently, on “mental construal.” Arousal is “the physical state of increasing activation that can vary from drowsiness to excitement” and which, cognitively, “changes attention, thought, and performance.” Construal refers to how people process information related to stimuli, and the level of precision and detail with which they mentally represent that information, from concrete (low level) to abstract (high level). Given the widespread perceptual association between coffee and arousal, Chan and Maglio hypothesized that “exposure to coffee cues may increase arousal than in turn will prompt more concrete-level processing.”

In the first experiment, designed to establish a connection between coffee cues and “psychological distance,” participants were asked to list three activities that they planned to do in the future, and then exposed to either coffee or tea cues (presented with the task of generating sales slogans for a beverage company planning to introduce a new brand of either coffee beans or tea leaves).  After their exposure to the coffee and tea cues, the participants were given their list of three future activities and asked when they planned to engage in each one of them. Those who had been exposed to the coffee-related cues listed shorter time periods than those exposed to the tea cues, indicating that exposure to coffee cues had reduced their “temporal psychological distance.”

The second experiment was geared toward finding the effect of coffee-related cues on “self-reported arousal” as well as on construal. Participants read an article summarizing the health benefits of either coffee or tea (identical in content except for the reference to either coffee or tea) and then asked to write additional benefits of their beverage. They then completed two instruments designed to measure, respectively, construal (responding to questions in either concrete or abstract terms) and perceived arousal (reporting their current arousal feelings on a 24 dimension scale including such options as “excited,” “active,” and “drowsy”). As hypothesized, the coffee cues appeared to increase arousal, which subsequently led to more concrete construal.

Physiological arousal was measured in a third experiment which followed the same procedure as the second experiment, but with the addition of a smartphone app that measured participants’ heart rates. The participants exposed to the coffee cues had higher pulse rates than those exposed to the tea cues, as well as exhibiting more concrete construal.

A fourth experiment provided complementary evidence for the finding that “arousal mediates the effect of coffee-related cues on concrete levels of construal.”  The procedure was the same as in the previous two experiments, but this time arousal levels were manipulated to see if increasing arousal amplified the construal effect, and weakening arousal weakened the effect. Arousal levels were manipulated by exposing participants to either a high arousal condition (a clip from a car chase in “The Fast and the Furious”) or a low arousal condition (a clip from “The House of Rock”). As expected, the high arousal condition resulted in a lower score on the construal instrument, supporting the other experiments’ suggestion that “arousal can explain the link between coffee cues and concrete mental construal.”

The results of the four experiments suggest that mere exposure to coffee cues, even without actual consumption of the beverage, can increase arousal, which in turn can result in more concrete thinking.

Now, this is not to suggest that coffee cues such as those used in this study can ever take the place of an actual steaming cup of hot coffee. I, for one, have invested far too much of myself in cultivating a serious coffee habit to ever consider giving it up—especially in exchange for a mere representation of coffee in images or words. It’s comforting to know, however, that on those rare occasions when circumstances present me with some heavy cognitive task at a time when I have no access to a café or a Keurig machine, conjuring a mental representation of my favorite black mug filled to the brim with twelve ounces of freshly brewed French roast can give me the attention boost I need to at least get the job started. I’ll save the mental heavy lifting, of course, for later—when I’ve had a chance to replace the imaginary mug for a real one.

References

Chan, Eugene Y., and Sam J. Maglio. “Coffee Cues Elevate Arousal and Reduce Level of Construal.” Consciousness and Cognition. (2019) 70: 57-69.

Currey, Mason. “Artists Who Drink Crazy Amounts of Coffee. (Balzac Was a 50-Cup-a-Day Man.).” Slate Magazine, Slate, 19 Apr. 2013, slate.com/culture/2013/04/coffee-from-balzac-to-beethoven-it-has-fueled-artistic-endeavor-for-centuries.html.