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Is the aroma of coffee enough to boost cognitive focus?

What if you can get the brain-boosting benefits of coffee without the drawbacks of caffeine? Australian and Canadian researchers suggest that the placebo effect might apply to coffee.

Many people start their day with a hot cup of coffee. Not only does it kick-start many brain processes, it also encourages strangers to strike up a conversation with each other. Coffee can provide its drinker with welcome comfort. Some even consider it an essential part of their daily routine.

A team from Monash University in Australia and the University of Toronto tested the potential placebo effect of coffee. Researcher Dr. Eugene Chan and his colleagues explored the relationship between coffee and arousal.

For their experiment, they exposed participants to stimuli associated with coffee, such as the sight, smell, and sounds made by a cup. Their goal was to see if these stimuli have a placebo effect similar to consuming coffee.

They found that regular coffee drinkers experienced increased arousal, drive, and concentration despite not having consumed a single drop of coffee during the experiment. (Related: Your coffee maker might be making you sick, thanks to BPA.)

You might not need to drink coffee to experience its benefits

“As long as individuals see a connection between coffee and arousal, whatever its origin may be, mere exposure to coffee-related cues might trigger arousal in and of themselves without ingesting any form of caffeine,” explained Chan.

He elaborated that the smell of coffee led to its arousing effects on the brain of participants who have made it a habit to drink the beverage. Much like the dogs in Pavlovian classical conditioning, regular drinkers conditioned themselves to react to coffee in specific ways.

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As such, regular coffee drinkers who pass by their usual cafe, catch the scent of coffee, or glimpse an advertisement will respond to these stimuli as if they consumed the beverage. The chemical receptors in their brains get triggered by coffee-related stimuli.

The researchers ran four separate experiments. They exposed people from Western and Eastern cultures to cues related to coffee and tea.

One experiment asked the participants to develop advertising catchwords for coffee or tea. Another had people write mock-up news articles about the health benefits of drinking either beverage.

The researchers kept track of the arousal levels and heart rates of the participants. They used the data to evaluate “mental construct,” a psychological effect that defines a person’s thought processes.

Habitual drinkers react to the cues of coffee as if they were drinking it

The results indicated that providing coffee-related cues to participants made them more alert and improved their focus on a single task. Their energy levels and heart rate went up as well.

Participants from Western countries proved more likely to display the psychoactive effects of the beverage than those from Eastern countries. Westerners connected coffee with ambition, focus, and energy.

The participants also demonstrated greater arousal when exposed to coffee-related cues.

Chan remarked that their research drew upon psychological associations with coffee. Their findings offer interesting implications for ways to change the way people think and respond.

For example, many habitual coffee drinkers have switched to the decaffeinated version due to health reasons. Despite the lack of caffeine, drinking decaffeinated coffee still improves reaction times.

“Perhaps the mental association between coffee and arousal is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even where there’s no caffeine ingestion physiologically,” Chan said. ”This adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that the foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure — mere exposure to, or reminders of them, affect how we think.”

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