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