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Does Coffee Make You Smarter? The Truth About Caffeine & Your Brain

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Coffee gets us going in the morning, perks us up in the afternoon, and fuels our busy lives, but did you know that it also can make you smarter? Regular coffee consumption – caffeine consumption more specifically – has many well-documented benefits for your brain that make it one of the rare things that are both good for you and delicious. Drinking another cup of coffee with your breakfast won’t make you the next Einstein but will provide tangible improvements to intelligence and long-term brain health.

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about your brain’s relationship with coffee and explain why drinking coffee is one of the better habits you can have – as if you needed another reason to love coffee. So, go brew another cup and let’s get started.

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Coffee’s Short Term Effects

Anyone who drinks coffee is familiar with the energy boost they get from drinking coffee. When you stay up late studying or have to wake up early for work, a cup of coffee can help clear the cobwebs and get you functioning normally on a smaller-than-usual amount of sleep. But have you ever wondered why that is? After all, you’re not any more well-rested after you have coffee, so why does it feel like you are?

The answer, of course, is caffeine. Because coffee is so widely consumed, caffeine is one of the most studied psychoactive substances in the world, and therefore the effects of caffeine on humans are well-understood. Caffeine interacts with a neurotransmitter in your brain called adenosine, which regulates your brain’s activity and plays an important role in sleep. When you consume caffeine, it blocks adenosine, which leads to an increase in brain activity that means your brain can work harder than it otherwise would.

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Image Credit: I love coffee, Shutterstock

Many studies – like this one – show that drinking one to four standard cups of coffee per day gives you enough caffeine to provide a measurable improvement to your memory, cognitive function, and ability to focus. These, and a host of other short-lived but dramatic factors, all add up to make a person smarter, albeit temporarily.

An interesting study of performance-enhancing drugs in chess competition found that caffeine consumption improved results nearly as much as prescription medicines designed to treat ADHD by increasing a person’s ability to focus. The effects were significant enough to consider whether caffeine should be a controlled substance banned from use in mental competitions like chess tournaments.

woman drinking coffee
Image Credit: Ketut Subiyanto, Pexels

While these are some impressive results that make a strong case for coffee making you smarter, thus far, the effects on intelligence are transient. Is it actually fair to claim that coffee makes you smarter when the benefits fade as the caffeine concentration in your blood decreases?

It is an interesting question without an obvious answer, but we think that answer is yes. The improvements to cognitive function that coffee-drinkers enjoy are real effects that have stood up to intense scientific scrutiny. Being short-lived doesn’t cheapen the fact that drinking coffee enhances mental performance.

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Coffee’s Long-Term Effects

So far, we’ve only discussed short term boosts to intelligence that vanish once your body has processed the caffeine. The good news is regular coffee drinkers also have improved brain health throughout their lives. These benefits aren’t specifically intelligence-related, but overall brain health is important and closely related enough to warrant a quick discussion.

Image Credit: fotografierende, Pixabay

Studies have shown that regular caffeine consumption in doses typically found in one to four cups of coffee has a neuroprotective effect that reduces a person’s chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Caffeine’s effect on long-term memory is less clear than its effect on short-term memory. Still, a few studies indicate that long-term memory may be improved by caffeine consumption during and after the learning process.

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So Does Coffee Make You Smarter?

Coffee is one of the few habits that feels like a guilty pleasure but, in reality, has virtually no drawbacks. Drinking coffee regularly in moderation comes with many benefits to cognitive function and brain health, with relatively few negative side effects to worry about.

It might seem too good to be true, but coffee contains enough caffeine to have a measurable positive effect on intelligence and also provide protection against some of the nastiest and most common degenerative brain diseases. If the enticing aroma and delicious taste aren’t enough reasons to love coffee, the brain-boosting effects of caffeine certainly are.

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Featured Image: Engin_Akyurt, Pixabay


Sean Brennan

Sean’s obsession with coffee started when he received his first French press as a gift almost ten years ago. Since then, his love of coffee – and the number of coffee gadgets he owns – has grown considerably. A scientist by training, there is no stone he has left unturned in the never-ending quest for the perfect cup of coffee. He has spent many hours tuning his pour-over technique, thinking about how to best compare grind quality, and worrying about whether the Nicaraguan or Kenyan beans will make the best cold brew. These days he favors the Hario V60, and starts each day by hand grinding his coffee before enjoying a cup prepared with care and attention to detail.

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