This Is Your Learner’s Brain on Coffee

coffeeIt’s been called “America’s number one drug problem” and “a miracle drug for the tired.” Onsite training programs often provide coffee as a refreshment for learners and instructors alike, and its presence in the workplace is so expected that coffee frequently appears on the list of top perks offered in desirable workplaces. But what is it, really? Should we be pumping our learners with the beverage in order to maximize brain performance and memory, or weaning them off it to support long-term health? So far, science seems to be on two sides of this question.

How Caffeine Works in the Brain

Technically, it’s not really coffee itself that is the issue; it’s the caffeine that the drink delivers to our brains. That’s right, your delicious steaming cup of coffee is really a drug delivery mechanism, producing powerful effects. The same can apply to many soft drinks, which often contain caffeine. Here’s how it works:

Caffeine blocks the reception of adenosine, a compound found naturally in the brain that makes you sleepy. It mimics the chemical structure of adenosine, taking the place of this compound in the brain and preventing the sleepy response. It also stimulates the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, attention, memory and more. In smaller doses, this effect can make us more alert. One study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that regular caffeine use in the workplace can make our behavior more ethical, especially if we are a little sleep-deprived.

Some Benefits of Caffeine Use

In a recent study, caffeine was found to strengthen cellular connections in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming spatial memory. Other studies seems to suggest that caffeine stimulates the metabolism, strengthens the heart and promotes cognitive performance on certain specific tests for brain function. In fact, the use of caffeine in military applications is well documented, allowing soldiers to stay awake and highly functioning for 98 hours or more. So if you need to enhance learning, or your employees need to be at their best under high-stress situations for long periods of time, coffee or even a supply of soft drinks may be a great tool for giving the brain a temporary boost.

Some Risks of Caffeine Use

There can be a darker side to coffee consumption. Despite all this positive press, caffeine is still known to be addictive and withdrawal symptoms can lead to reduced mental acuity, depression, forgetfulness, tiredness, even physical pain. The behavioral issues associated with an addiction can be disruptive in a workplace as well, causing the employee to focus more on getting the next “fix” than on performing the work. As with any addictive drug, caffeine can be abused, resulting in mild to significant health issues. These risks are more pronounced for persons in certain risk groups, such as pregnancy and high blood pressure. Caffeine use may even inhibit creativity, by giving you too much focus and preventing idea creation and experimentation.

If you are starting to wonder if you may be addicted yourself, you can find out by taking this simple test. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I have never actually taken this test myself. I guess you could say that I’m in denial about my coffee habit and I really don’t want to know.

Conclusions

How can a learning professional make sense of it all? There seems to be too much contradictory information on coffee and caffeine at the moment to draw any definitive conclusions, so your best bet may be moderation – for yourself and your learners. Just try not to stress out about it too much, sit back, relax, and brew a nice satisfying cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy the buzz.

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