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Can Coffee Really Make You Hallucinate?

Our caffeinated culture may be having an effect on our cognitive functioning.

When the study's participants entered the lab, they heard "White Christmas" playing in the background. They sat down and a researcher handed them headphones. Everyone was instructed that Bing Crosby's song, the one they had just heard, might be embedded in the sounds they'd be hearing on their headphones. A researcher told them, "If you think or believe that you hear the song, or a fragment of the song clearly, please indicate so by pressing the hand counter."

The experiment was designed to test for auditory hallucinations. Could drinking coffee make us more apt to find meaningful sounds in random noise?

Well, for three minutes, the researchers played white noise and white noise only. According to a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, those who had been drinking coffee and were stressed were more likely to hear "White Christmas" in the white noise. Coffee consumption set off false alarms.

If there are any implications here, it's probably not what you've been breathlessly reading about on the Internet ("Coffee causes hallucinations!"). Because there wasn't a placebo or a control drink and all the drinking was self-reported, the study's results can't be be pinned conclusively on coffee. Perhaps coffee correlates with less sleep or increased suggestibility. Both of these factors might affect how likely we are to believe we're hearing sounds that may not actually exist.

Still, as the study's author told the BBC, it raises bigger questions about what the shift from illicit to licit drugs means. How do we, as a culture, want to treat drug-infused food and drinks? Four Loko, anyone? In addition to underscoring just how little we know about caffeine's pharmacology, there's another interesting question raised: how well can coffee help us sift through useless information (white noise) in our search of knowledge ("White Christmas")?

In James Gleick's epic biography of information theory, The Information, he writes about the problems associated with overabundant information and mentions Siegfried Steurfert, a researcher who has looked into the effects of "superoptimal information loads." In one study, "Excess Coffee Consumption in Simulated Complex Work Settings: Detriment or Facilitation of Performance?" Steurfert measured the effects of four large cups of coffee (400-450 mg of caffeine) on 25 managers and found these results:

Increased caffeine consumption in such individuals appears to have mixed results. Response speed to incoming information was hastened. Whereas faster responses are generally of value in simpler task settings, the same is not necessarily the case in complex task performance.


In other words, these superoptimal doses of caffeine—a really red eye or one too many Red Bulls—help us respond faster to more and more email (or news stories about hallucinations), but that doesn't necessarily impart a greater wisdom, an increasingly valued skill in a world characterized by way too much information.

Photo "Neal Cassidy, 1964" by Allen Ginsberg via. Chart via "The effect of caffeine and stress on auditory hallucinations in a non-clinical sample."

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