Study: Thinking of coffee can be as stimulating as drinking coffee

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The power of suggestion apparently extends to coffee — whether you’re thinking of it or actually drinking it.

Either way, according to a new study, your brain is likely to get the same boost.

In this case, imaginary caffeine works as well as real caffeine.

“Coffee is one of the most popular beverages and a lot is known about its physical effects,” said Sam Maglio, an associate professor in the department of management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management. “Much less is known about its psychological meaning in other words, how even seeing reminders of it can influence how we think.”

The study, co-authored by Maglio and published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, looks at an effect called priming, where exposure to even subtle cues can influence our thoughts and behavior.

“We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually had coffee.”

Arousal in psychology refers to how specific areas of the brain get activated into a state of being alert, awake and attentive. It can be triggered by a number of things, including our emotions, neurotransmitters in the brain, or the caffeinated beverages we consume.   

Across four separate studies and using a mix of participants from western and eastern cultures, the researchers found people responded the same with thoughts of coffee and by drinking coffee.

Maglio says the next steps for the research will look at associations people have for different foods and beverages. Just thinking about energy drinks or red wine, for example, could have very different effects on arousal.

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