Coffee: Positive Thinking in a Cup

by February 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jonathan Riethmaier @DistrictBean or email him at jonathan[AT]


Drink it up every morning. (Jonathan Riethmaier)

The series of activities that comprise my morning ritual can be neatly placed into two distinct categories. First there are the things that occur before my morning coffee, a forgettable yet loathsome set of tasks fueled by a sort of sub-human automation I like to refer to as Zombie Jonathan.

Then there are the post-coffee activities, which I tackle with heightened mental awareness and significantly enhanced efficiency and mood. As my colleagues and wife can attest, Zombie Jonathan is not welcomed company.

Scientists have observed that, while that mood and cognitive functioning can improve after drinking coffee, we can now draw a connection between caffeine and our ability to process positive stimuli.

When we take down our morning coffee, we’re actually supercharging our brain’s ability to recognize and process words with positive connotations, an effect not observed with neutral or negative words.

So if you’ve noticed that the world seems a bit brighter after your morning joe, there’s evidence that our brain is working faster as we hear or see good news!

This connection was observed by Lars Kuchinke and Vanessa Lux*, researchers at Ruhr University in Buchum, Germany, who point to caffeine’s role in dopaminergic transmission in the brain. If we consume enough caffeine, they say, we create a positivity advantage in the left hemisphere, the area most associated with language.

The result is faster and more accurate brain processing of positive information. And research shows that as little as 200 milligrams of caffeine, or two to three cups of coffee, is sufficient enough to boost such performance.

In a research experiment, Kuchinke and Lux gathered 66 healthy participants who reported “normal” caffeine consumption (on average, 1.58 cups of coffee per day). The participants were split between a caffeine group — those provided with a 200-milligram caffeine tablet — and a placebo group that received a sugar tablet.

Each group consumed their tablet 30 minutes prior to a word recognition test in which actual words with varying connotations (positive, neutral or negative) were presented amid pseudo-words, strings of letters that look and feel like real words but have no lexical meaning. Participants had to quickly and accurately recognize the actual words, then rate them on a Likert scale from 1 (calm) to 7 (highly arousing).

The results indicated that the caffeine group performed significantly better when evaluating positive words. There was no difference in the recognition of words that were either neutral or negative. This means that us coffee lovers aren’t simply processing all information better, but specifically the positive information we encounter. It’s just another happy bit of news for the caffeinated among us. And I’ll drink to that!

* Lars Kuchinke, Vanessa Lux. Caffeine Improves Left Hemisphere Processing of Positive Words.

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