Johnson: Reconsidering the perceived importance of caffeine

Naomi Johnson, Columnist

I am going to ask you to do something unpleasant: Reminisce about finals week from last quarter. Remember the urgency, the pain, the sleep deprivation? The air feels different on campus during finals week, and I don’t think I need to explain that feeling to anyone at Northwestern. What I do think needs to be discussed, however, is the role of caffeine in all of this academic chaos.

Without getting too technical, caffeine is basically a type of purine, a chemical compound that prevents adenosine from binding to its receptors, thus preventing adenosine from functioning for a certain period of time. This means that caffeine is classified as a legal psychoactive drug that functions primarily as a substance that extends the time the consumer stays awake. As we see on campus, caffeine is an essential part of daily life.

Much like in the NU community, caffeine consumption is ubiquitous around the world. It is not surprising that caffeinated beverages are popular, especially in societies where sleep deprivation is a fixture in everyday life. To provide a recent example of the importance of caffeine, Serena Williams took a shot of espresso on the tennis court during her match with Italy’s Flavia Pennetta. After winning the match, Williams expressed her need for caffeine to play at an optimal level, and praised the coffee that she was provided during the competition.

Of course, this emphasis on the necessity of caffeine is definitely not exclusive to Serena Williams; I hear conversations on campus about caffeine nearly every day. The content of these conversations – especially during finals week and midterm season – often center around students’ lack of sleep and caffeine intake. I have walked into classrooms that were so saturated with the smell of coffee and tea that it didn’t seem impossible to ingest caffeine by breathing. It isn’t an exaggeration, then, to say that caffeine is nearly everywhere on campus.

But is caffeine really that important? Sure, there are scientific research papers, such as a 2010 study from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, that tout caffeine’s potential to protect our increasingly aging population from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, among other mental conditions. Exhaustive findings on the effects of caffeine on cognition, behavioral efficiency and overall mood have generally been positive, meaning caffeine can, in moderation, increase alertness and improve cognition. But I don’t think this shows the whole picture.

What I take issue with is the enormous amount of credit that people are willing to give to caffeine in terms of their academic success. I don’t know why a running tally of the number of cups of coffee, tea or energy drinks that people consumed within a given time frame can act as affirmation of how much work they are doing or how little sleep they are getting. Of course, I am not trying to generalize and say that every caffeinated beverage consumer does this, but it appears to be a recurring pattern that persists both on this campus and in the rest of this country.

I am not trying to discourage caffeine consumption or criticize those who drink caffeinated beverages. Rather, I am trying to articulate the reason I think the perception of the power of caffeine is greater than the actual “power” of caffeine as a psychoactive substance. A careful review of the scientific literature will show that, despite the potentials for caffeine to protect at-risk individuals from mental illnesses, the rhetoric that describes these potentials is still obscured by “maybes,” “mights” and correlation rather than causation. The lack of proven causation regarding the benefits of caffeine contrasts with what I think are definite positive perceptions of caffeine.

Even the rigorous, controlled studies on caffeine’s direct positive effects on alertness and cognition show these benefits are transient and contingent on the individual’s ability to moderate his or her consumption of caffeine, meaning caffeine can only amplify your abilities if you make the right decisions for your own body.

It is not the caffeine that finished the essay, group project or problem set — you finished your work, because you made a commitment to it. A purine that acts as diffusely as caffeine — it’s very soluble and can therefore affect different adenosine receptors throughout the brain — did not draft the very targeted and specific research proposal for your equally specific research question. In the end, when the initial jolt of caffeine subsides and your adenosine receptors begin to function normally and your liver beings to metabolize the aftermath of those seven cups of coffee, it is you and your will that remains — and that is the only thing that matters.

Naomi Johnson is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].