One of the reasons I get out of bed every morning is coffee. Breakfast cereal is dull, I don’t have class until 1:20 p.m. and work doesn’t seem all that compelling at 8:30 a.m. But the gurgle of my little stove-top mocha pot, reporting that four ounces of highly concentrated caffeine is waiting for me, lightly sweetened, and ready for hurried consumption on my way out the door, is blissful. As I walk up the hill, a heady alertness comes over me – my mind feels like a gas, expanding and pressing against the boundaries of my skull, and my heart rate starts rising slightly.
It’s difficult to say precisely what long-term effects coffee has on regular consumers. Nearly every other day, buried a few pages deep in the newspaper, another landmark study is produced that suggests positive (or negative) health trends for medium to high consumers of coffee, followed by tepid speculation, and always ending with some form of the aphorism “everything in moderation” that amounts to a journalistic shrug.
Occasionally, a few too many grinds find their way into the coffeepot, and I become overcaffeinated. I’m on edge – alertness becomes anxiety, my vision can feel strobe-like, my abdomen shivers. If someone were to try and scare me, I might have a heart attack.
However, this is a small price to pay in staving off caffeine withdrawal. On the very rare occasion that I fail to caffeinate, my brain feels like a marble rattling around in my skull. Eyes must be peeled open, and the bridge between mind and body seems irreparably broken, chemical
signals leaping off a cliff, trying to tell my arms and legs to move, as I drag myself through classes.
In June of this year, the New Yorker published an article by Maria Konnikova that argued that the effects of caffeine are antithetical to the creative process. She suggests that while creativity is of course difficult to measure, sleep and cognitive “unfocus” are essential elements to creative and critical thinking, which caffeine impairs.
I can remember, quite distinctly, my first real dose of caffeine. After a sleepless night on my first extensive trip to New York City, I grabbed a latte at some place in Brooklyn and spent the rest of the day walking around the city, sharply observing each brick building or man peering out of a window, and feeling altogether happy and full of jittery excitement. As with every sensation, part of continued caffeine use is probably about trying to capture that emotion again. Unfortunately, of late, caffeine has made me feel like a part of “Coffee Nerves New York” (a strange, very short, film: check it out).
Now, of course, there are innumerable factors that go into creativity, and its probably stupid to raise the question when there are so many other ways that creativity works. But for me, the question lingers. Particularly when we are so often tasked with critical thinking, does our caffeine use make us less creative? Does the added alertness and concentration outweigh our ability to find creative solutions?
I feel that, in general, people are probably aware of this trade-off and make the decision for themselves (or simply consume less than I do). For me, ideally, I would suck it up and cut caffeine (with the added clarity and motivation) out of my schedule. It undeniably impairs my sleep. The concentration can turn into a hyperfocused productivity that bars a more
More than that, it simply feels exceptionally lame to say that I “need” coffee at school. There are soldiers, night-shift factory workers, emergency response personnel around the world with much greater responsibility than I, making do with orange juice, or worse, at their breakfast table. If our one task is to think creatively, shouldn’t I make every effort to do so?
All aside, it’s a habit I can’t kick. I withdrew for a week over the summer, and each day at my job at a teen center, I had to talk myself out of a trip to Dunkin Donuts during lunch. The first day I was back on campus, I got a tall cup of coffee from the Barge and went about my morning cheerfully. And while it might be better to think more expansively about the text at hand, rather than how my hand is shaking, its not something I’ve been able give up at school yet. Maybe I have more responsibility than my lounging self ought to, but caffeine is here to stay.
Contact Nate Lynch at [email protected]