Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Coffee, hallucinations, and Bing Crosby

A recent study, done by Dr. Simon Crowe of La Trobe University in Australia, has found that coffee is hallucinogenic.

That it is psychotropic falls into the "Tell Me Something I Didn't Already Know" department.  I am barely civil before I've had at least two cups of coffee.  (Some days I'm barely civil afterwards, either, but that's another matter.)  For me, it's not the alertness I'm after; being a nervous, high-strung type to begin with, who gets up at five in the morning every day whether I have to or not, it's not like I really need anything to make me more wired than I already am.  Coffee seems to have the same effect on me that turning the focus wheel on a pair of binoculars does.  Everything suddenly seems to brighten up, have sharp outlines, make sense.  I feel like I'm seeing things clearly.

Now, I'm told, I might be seeing things that aren't there.

Dr. Crowe's team tested 92 people with varying levels of caffeine.  The test was billed to the subjects as a hearing test, who were told that they'd be listening to a three minute clip of white noise, in which there might or might not be snippets of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."  They were instructed to press a buzzer when they heard a piece of the song.  In fact, the clip had no music in it at all.  The non-coffee drinkers did occasionally imagine that they heard Crosby's voice; but the coffee drinkers were three times as likely to press the buzzer.  The effect was even more pronounced with people who described themselves as "stressed" and who drank coffee.

"If you are stressed and have a high level of caffeine, you are more likely to notice things that aren't there, see things that aren't there," Dr. Crowe said.

Me, I wonder.  I suspect that part of it is that after the caffeine equivalent of five cups of coffee (the standard for "heavy coffee drinking" used in the experiment), the test subjects' hands were simply shaking so badly that they kept setting the buzzer off.  Or, perhaps, sitting still and listening to white noise for three minutes was simply beyond their capacities.

I tend to be a little frustrated by the way that popular media presents medical (and other scientific) research findings.  Let's be clear about what Dr. Crowe found: he found that people who drank the equivalent of five or more cups of coffee were likely to think they were hearing music when they really weren't.  The headline, of course, didn't say that -- it said "Coffee Causes Hallucinations," which might lead the less careful reader to conclude that your average businessman stopping at Starbuck's for a cuppa joe in the morning was suddenly going to flip out on the bus and start seeing flying monkeys. 

Frankly, I'm skeptical that caffeine is bad for you at all, at least when taken in reasonable amounts.  In the brain it acts as an antagonist to adenosine, a neural suppressant and signal for metabolic stress.  In studies, caffeine has been shown to decrease reaction time, increase endurance, reduce the risk of heart disease and kidney stones, increase short-term memory and ability to focus, and decrease the likelihood I'll strangle someone in my first period class.  These are some pretty significant benefits to health and happiness, and if because of it I occasionally hallucinate that I'm hearing clips from Bing Crosby songs, I guess I consider than an acceptable tradeoff.  (Now, if I started seeing Bing Crosby, that would be another matter entirely.)

In any case, I'm going to wind up this post with some general advice not to jump to conclusions based upon sensationalized reports of medical research in the press.  First, if you took every piece of medical advice that shows up in the media, you'd be living on bread and water (or just the water, if you're gluten-intolerant).

Second, the coffee's done brewing, and if I don't have a cup soon, I'm going to hurt someone.

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