July 21, 2004
Caffeine Alertness Comes At Cost Of Word Recall

The increased level of alertness from using caffeine from coffee or tea comes at a cost: When asked a question unrelated to your chain of thought you'll be less likely to recall the correct word for the answer if you are on caffeine.

Your first cup of coffee each morning increases your alertness, but a new study suggests caffeine--potentially because of how it interacts with neurons in the brain--might actually hinder your short-term recall of certain words. That is, it may temporarily suppress access to information locked in your memory and unrelated to your current train of thought. For example, you might struggle to remember an acquaintance's name after meeting many new people at a morning meeting.

The findings come from a study in the latest issue of APA's Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 118, No. 3) in which researchers Steve Womble, PhD, and Valerie Lesk, both of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, examined the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon--a form of memory retrieval failure in which someone knows an answer for certain, yet is at a particular moment unable to recall it. They sought to provide a potential neurological explanation of how caffeine affects short-term memory.

Caffeine helps for some types of word recall but hurts for other types.

Miss Lesk said: "In some conditions caffeine helps short-term memory and in others it makes it worse.

"It aids short-term memory when the information to be recalled is related to the current train of thought but hinders short-term memory when it is unrelated.

"If the word is unrelated then caffeine is still strengthening retrieval in the same way, but because it is unrelated to the word you want to find it is actually having a negative effect," she said.

Think of caffeine as a drug that reduces distractability. Get on one chain of thought. Then encounter a distraction that requires you to shift to another chain of thought. Caffeine will inhibit your brain's ability to make that transition.

Obviously, this is a trade-off. The ability to resist distractions is a plus in some environments. But that is not always the case. Other environments require frequent attention shifting.

Caffeine is a tool. This is another piece of scientific evidence on how to use it. Also see my previous post: Scientists Demonstrate Best Way To Use Caffeine.

So what does this portend for the future? What we need (and I believe we will eventually find) are better pharmaceutical tools for shifting mental states to fit the types of work tasks we are doing. Imagine a safe, non-toxic, and fast-acting drug that reduces distractability and then imagine another safe, non-toxic, and fast-acting drug that reverses the effect of the first drug. That would be a useful pair of drugs. Shift your mind into an distraction-resistant mode and work at the computer in your office. Then, when called out to an impromptu meeting to debate some issue, flip your mind into a mode that reacts well to handling the input of lots of other people who are all jumping around making competing points. Sound appealing?

Update: Another example of a situation where you wouldn't want to be on coffee is as a TV game show contestant. A player on Jeoparday is going to be hit by a series of questions on unrelated topics. One wouldn't want one's mind to be better at answering follow-up questions on the same topic at the cost of not being as good at answering questions on unrelated topics. But a medical student taking a test on body bones would probably do better on caffeine since the knowledge of all the bones would probably be stored together and memorized fairly recently before taking the test (caffeine works against recalling older memories too).

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 July 21 03:26 PM  Brain Enhancement

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright