Caffeine is the most widely used mind-altering drug in the world. Most of us surely consume caffeine on a regular basis (or at least have consumed it in our lifetime). But, Do we know what the psychological effects of caffeine really are?
In this article, we will try to answer this question, through a review of recent scientific literature. We will see how its main effects occur in: convergent thinking (problem solving) and improving attention and concentration.
What is caffeine?
Before we dive into the psychological effects of caffeine, let’s take a look at exactly what this substance is. Caffeine, as most of us know, is mostly found in coffee; it is an alkaloid from the xanthine group, which acts as a psychoactive drug. Caffeine is absorbed and passes quickly through our brain; thus, it does not accumulate in the blood or is stored anywhere in the body. It is excreted in the urine.
The main effect of caffeine on our brain is the stimulation and / or excitement of the central nervous system., By a nonselective antagonist mechanism of adenosine receptors. It is for this reason that many people consume caffeine to combat fatigue or short-term drowsiness. In addition, caffeine also acts as a diuretic (helps our body to eliminate fluids).
Where is caffeine extracted from? Mainly from certain types of plants, although it can also be synthesized artificially.
Psychological effects of caffeine
What are the psychological effects of caffeine? To answer this question, let’s look at a recent study that examines its effects on different cognitive processes.
As we have seen, caffeine concerns a psychotropic drug; specifically, the most consumed in the world. The main psychological effects of caffeine are: increased alertness and alertness, improved mood, and improved concentration and attention. Some studies even speak of a possible effect of caffeine on creative thinking.
1. Concentration and attention
The results of the study that we are going to analyze (Zabelina & Silvia, 2020), show how the consumption of caffeine produces greater concentration and greater attention.
This study used a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design in subjects who consumed 200 mg of caffeine (about one large cup of American-style coffee) vs. those who did not consume it (placebo group).
The study focused on analyzing the effects of caffeine on two types of thinking: convergent thinking (problem solving) and divergent or creative thinking (Generation of creative ideas).
Overall, the psychological effects of caffeine shown in this study are that caffeine significantly improves problem solving, although its effects on creative idea generation and / or working memory are not so clear ( no improvement occurs), as we will see later.
Also, it should be mentioned that in the study they were controlled participants’ expectations that their belief in whether or not they consumed caffeine would not affect the results.
2. Problem solving
The mentioned study (Zabelina & Silva, 2020) showed how caffeine consumption (200 mg) was associated with better results in problem solving (in particular, faster resolution). This, in turn, was related to an improvement in the speed of information processing.
The psychological effects of caffeine manifested in this study are in line with those of previous ones such as research by Rao et al., 2005.
In addition, these studies also establish that caffeine consumption is associated with improved problem solving (in general, whether the approach is more analytical or more holistic) and other higher-order cognitive processes (e.g. example the inhibition of the response).
Attention enhancement takes the form of, among other things, visual tasks that require the use of selective attention.. These findings are linked to increased activity in the prefrontal area of the brain.
3. Creative thinking
Are the psychological effects of caffeine also extrapolated to creative thinking? Regarding this type of thinking (also called divergent thinking), a priori, the aforementioned study shows how caffeine did not affect the generation of creative ideas.
On the other hand, this type of thinking is known to be associated with increased alpha activity in the brain (linked, in turn, to relaxation and inhibition of the network). Caffeine reduces alpha activity, so one would expect this substance to reduce the generation of divergent thoughts..
However, the results are unclear, as another line of work reports complex interactions that occur between “top-down” cognitive processes and “bottom-up” processes.) During divergent thinking.
As for the psychological effects of caffeine on creative or divergent thinking, it is not known if it has any effect on it.
However, depending on the study analyzed, it may also be that the amount of caffeine given to participants (200 mg) was not sufficient to produce a relevant effect on the generation of ideas during divergent thinking. Yes, higher amounts (eg 400 mg) are expected to negatively affect this type of thinking, making it difficult.
More or better creative ideas?
One fact is worth mentioning, and the test used to assess divergent thinking in the study by Zabelina & Silva (2020), called ATTA (Divergent Thinking Task Battery), it may reflect primarily the number of creative ideas people can generate, and not so much the quality of those ideas..
This deserves to be taken into account because, it could “alter” the results, in that the effects of caffeine would be zero to generate a lot of ideas, but the few generated could be very good.
Placebo effect in the study
In the Zabelina & Silva study, some participants did not take the caffeine capsule, but a placebo capsule.
In connection with this, participants were seen consuming the caffeine capsule. they were just as likely to guess if their capsule was caffeine as if it was a placebo (In other words, the same probabilities of being wrong); however, participants in the placebo capsule were more likely to be correct (saying their capsule was a placebo).
What is interesting about this fact? That these results are consistent with what previous literature has said on the subject (Griffiths et al., 1990), and that discrimination in this regard is reduced after caffeine consumption.
- Griffiths, RR, Evans, SM, Heishman, SJ, Preston, KL, Sannerud, CA, Wolf, B. & Woodson, PP (1990). Discrimination at low doses of caffeine in humans. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 252 (3), 970-978.
- Rao, A., Hu, H., and Nobre, AC (2005). The effects of drinks combined with caffeine and glucose on attention to the human brain. Nutritional Neurosciences, 8 (3), 141-153.
- Zabelina, DL and Silvia, PJ (in press). Ideas for Brewing: The Effects of Caffeine on Creative Thinking and Problem Solving. Consciousness and cognition.