Who wants to drink a coffee? I would argue, nearly everyone. Coffee has been part of my life since I was going to school and that is a long time ago. If you meet new colleagues, a coffee is the perfect way to start a conversation. Also, when going to a conference, the coffee break is what you are really looking forward too. If you want to seem like a respectable adult in the morning, coffee is the only way. Being a university lecturer, I certainly need my dose of coffee. Recently however, I was wondering if coffee is actually that helpful and especially if coffee is for learning. It turns out, it might, but only if you are tired!
I think we can all agree, that coffee keeps us awake on a long day of work. There has been a wide variety of benefits attributed to caffeine, as long as you do not drink to much of it. Generally, if you drink around 5.5mg caffeine per kilogram of weight, you will be fine. So for a 75kg adult, that adds up to 400mg of caffeine or about 4 cups of brewed coffee. Coffee takes about 15 to 120 minuntes until its effects are measurable and stays in your system for 3-5 hours, which came as a surprise to me, because I drink my last coffee at around 6 PM .
It is proven, that caffeine enhances lower cognitive functions like reaction time, vigilance or attention, but there is still a debate going on if caffeine actually enhances higher cognitive functions like problem solving or decision making. The interesting part here is, that it seems to have a lot to do with how tired you are, when you drink your coffee. Studies have shown that these positive effects only occur on severely fatigued individuals, whereas well-rested individuals do not show any improvement when drinking coffee. On the contrary, these people will enter a state of over-arousal and their cognition will in fact degrade. The magic number seems to be 4mg caffeine per kilogram of weight (so for a 75kg adult about three cups of coffee) . If you are tired, the coffee will help and if you are rested, the side-effects will be minimal.
The value of coffee for learning
So how about learning? Can coffee help to focus better? As stated above, caffeine can help with your alertness, attention and vigilance. Tests have shown, that caffeine has no effect on verbal or non-verbal memory, whether you drink small or large amounts of coffee . These tests however were short-term. Long-term tests have shown, that regular coffee consumption can in fact improve long-term memory (not short-term). It also seems, that women do better in these tests than men and older people better than younger .
Another study shows that timing also plays a role. In a test, people were challenged with memory tasks and given coffee AFTER completing the task. The interesting find was, that people who had ingested coffee after the memory task were able to retain the knowledge until the next day, whereas the control group which did not get a coffee did not . So this means, you do not necessarily have to drink your coffee before doing something demanding .
It also seems, that coffee has a bigger effect on incidental learning, so learning, when you are not aware of it. This seems interesting to me, as learning is usually an active process. However, if individuals did not know that they were learning something, coffee did enhance their memories .
Be it as it may
As could be seen, coffee has many effects and it seems to have an effect on learning and memory, although under strange conditions. One thing all studies agree however, is that it seems difficult to find the exact conditions that enhance or decrease learning tasks. This is probably due to different circumstances and individuals. What this tells us in the end is, that there is a positive effect, but it depends on several factors. It might be, that you have to find your own conditions for coffee to work, whether to drink it before or after a task, while learning actively or incidental or if you drink small or large amounts. And never forget: Always drink your water with your coffee!