It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the fact that to be caffeinated is not baseline consciousness but, in fact, an altered state. It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible.
Ironically, it is often the solution to the problem of its own creation, where we are caught in a cycle. Rather than giving us energy, caffeine is instead borrowing from later by blocking molecule that helps build the brain towards sleep.
It turns out that caffeine only appears to give us energy. Caffeine works by blocking the action of adenosine, a molecule that gradually accumulates in the brain over the course of the day, preparing the body to rest. Caffeine molecules interfere with this process, keeping adenosine from doing its job – and keeping us feeling alert. But adenosine levels continue to rise, so that when the caffeine is eventually metabolised, the adenosine floods the body’s receptors and tiredness returns. So the energy that caffeine gives us is borrowed, in effect, and eventually the debt must be paid back.
Associated with the chemistry, Pollan unpacks some of the history associated with the rise of caffiene. He talks about the role served by the coffee house in the 17th century in bringing in the age of enlightenment, as well as the place of tea in helping to improve performances and fuel capitalism in the industrial revolution.
This history has me rethinking a piece from Clive Thompson on Twitter as a digital coffee house.
In the 17th century, the advent of the coffee house was regarded as the Facebook of the day, a morass of gossip where “scholars are so greedy for their news” that “they neglect all for it.”
A century later, the rise of the novel provoked similar concerns that youth would drown in morally debased, trivial tales. (“Perpetual reading inevitably operates to exclude thought, and in the youthful mind to stint the opening mental faculties, by favouring unequal development,” as one social critic fulminated.) Today, of course, we understand the powerful and delightful cognitive role of novels and coffee-house chatter, and carefully steer our students toward them.
One day soon we will smile over the old-fashioned joys of a well-turned tweet.
I wonder if the ‘digital’ too is somehow borrowing from later in ‘making us smarter‘?
For other coffee related links, Jeremy Cherfas has a collection of podcast episodes, while Ed Cumming has a lengthy piece on Nespresso’s coffee revolution.