The Fluency of Caffeine

           Caffeine  Source: Commons. wikimedia.org
Caffeine Chemistry
Source: Commons. wikimedia.org

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach.

New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loves coffee. A lot of his cartoons have featured the stuff.  My favorite is entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dieticians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s.  At the wide base of Cheney’s chart are “The Caffeine’s” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchor the rest of a pyramid of necessities which include “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top.  Together they make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker.

Cheney obviously knows a lot about writers, which movie mogul Jack Warner once hilariously dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness.  Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped the spur of this addictive substance.  We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant.  Notwithstanding a recent New Yorker article suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in oweing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my stomach rebel.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry.  As James Hamblin explains in a June, 2013 Atlantic article, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can actually paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova concedes the point.  Caffeine

“boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration ... Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion."

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in.  A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand.  If only momentarily, its the paper cup that has top priority.

But there is an exception. A person facing a live audience in a more or less formal situation probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase of adrenaline that comes when we face a public audience.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is actually functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what is functionally two stimulants can be counter-productive.  They can make a presenter wired tighter than the “C” string at the top of a piano keyboard.  We all know the effects.  Instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation.  In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise as well, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different.  But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than performance.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu