To Caffeine or Not to Caffeine?
Does caffeine really make us more productive, or does it just help us do stupid things faster? Is the high worth the crash, or would we be better off staying away from the stuff? Of course, it depends, but I’ve decided to drink less.
I’m particularly fascinating with the question of what makes this intoxicating drink so well-suited to modern work. It seems that coffee disposes us to favor computer work that would otherwise be tedious. [EB: I should note that I wrote this “under the influence,” and I may not have had the stamina without the boost provided by coffee. I may have instead spent the time more productively, outdoors.]
In my pursuit of living more naturally and rejecting the unnatural modern alternatives, I consulted the founder of the so-called Natural Method. Georges Hébert, was a French military officer responsible for setting standards for naval recruits. He believed coffee made his soldiers weaker and less reliable and swore off it himself, along with refined sweets. The addictiveness of these substances makes us reliant on a daily dose and puts us in a bad state when it’s not available (such as on the battlefield).
His advice will seem like a bitter pill for coffee lovers, but there is a sweet coating. Our brains seem wired to experience the same reward we get from caffeine, along with all of the other feelings we crave when we lack the motivation to create. Caffeine may be a convenient shortcut to these outcomes, but it’s not the only way to achieve them. Brain chemistry confirms the words of Salvador Dali, “I don’t need drugs, I am drugs.”
TLDR: The Caffeine High and the Crash
Tonic vs. Phasic Dopamine
In music, a tonic is the first note in a scale and the “keynote” that provides harmony for the rest of the notes. Neurotransmitters like dopamine also have a natural “baseline” frequency. The timing and intensity of transmission from one neuron to another gives us a sense of reward and motivation for our actions, even when we are not on drugs. This is known as tonic transmission, whereas “phasic” transmission results from an outside stimulus — such as caffeine — that produces momentary intense bursts in dopamine traveling across the synapses (space between neurons). Put another way:
Tonic release is caused by “spontaneously occurring baseline spike activity and is driven by pacemaker-like membrane currents of DA neurons.” [1, and also see 2,3] … On the other hand, phasic release is caused by burst spike firing — usually in response to a sensory or pharmacological stimulus — and can increase local DA levels up to the range of 100s of microMoles to the millimolar range. 
Tonic function is slow and irregular, like a resting heart beat in a healthy person. The heart speeds up to accommodate changes in oxygen demands to different areas, which are variable. It’s only when we speed up that the more subtle signals get jammed, and the heartbeat/neurons start to fire in bursts in response to sudden oxygen-demands or dopamine.
Caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain by antagonizing (i.e., down-regulating) adenosine receptors. Normally, adenosine binds to these receptors and slows down nerve cell activity, making us drowsy. Caffeine acts like adenosine — taking its place on the receptors and preventing the normal binding of adenosine, but without slowing down neuron firing. As a result, the pituitary gland senses increased activity across synapses and thinks an emergency must be occurring, so it tells the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline — the “fight or flight” hormone that causes your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up in a state of readiness.
So here’s the short version: The good feelings stimulated by caffeinated are always present in tonic transmission, just in smaller amounts that your body determines to be appropriate to the situation. While the flash of inspiration may seem more reliable when you have coffee, that is only compared to a lowered tonic activity, which is desensitized by the phasic response to excessive stimulation. In other words, good things come to those who wait for their body’s spontaneous response. You don’t need drugs. You are drugs.
Some may say that I am committing the naturalistic fallacy — saying that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is inherently bad. For those who experience being caffeinated as synonymous with being “happy” (and uncaffeinated “depressed”), this will seem obviously wrong. However, most caffeine addicts had a time before adulthood when they were happy and full of energy, yet now they are dependent on a drug to achieve the same result. Indeed, there was a time when the whole world got along fine without coffee. So how did we get here — stuck doing tedious work that requires stimulants just to keep us going?
A Brief History of Coffee
Or How Coffee (but not the Ottomans) Invaded Europe
The psychoactive effect of coffee beans was first discovered around 1,000 years ago — later than alcohol, opium, cocaine, and marijuana. An Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi observed his goats prancing and frolicking more than usual. He saw them eating the berries of a tree that grows wild in the Ethiopian mountains, and tried some himself. He then joined the dancing goats and became “the happiest herder in happy Arabia.”
Later, a passing monk who was struggling to stay awake during prayer learned about the berries from Kaldi and brought them back to his community, where the idea of drying and boiling the berries to make a beverage was born.
From there it spread throughout Africa and the Middle East, becoming a popular drink in what is now Turkey, before being banned throughout the Ottoman Empire in the late 1500s. However, caffeine’s powerful psychotropic effects apparently overrode religious considerations when it came to military campaigns, and coffee was taken along as a performance enhancing drug of sorts for foreign conquest.
Coffee arrived in Vienna in 1683, following the siege by 350,000 Ottoman soldiers, under orders by Mohamed IV to conquer Europe. The Ottomans had surrounded the city, with the emperor of Austria narrowly escaping to one side of the city. His army of 33,000 stood on the other side of the city, awaiting command. While the Austrian emperor arranged for help from King John Sobieski III of Poland, an emissary named Franz George Kolschitzky was dispatched through the invading camps to keep up morale among the small fighting force on the other side. Kolschitzky had lived among the Turks for many years and knew the language and customs well enough to pass through the Turks’ camps unnoticed. A historian of the time documented his feat of espionage as follows:
When it began to dusk a little, an endless sea of Turkish tents unfolded before his eyes. The sight made him wonder which route to choose to pass through the camp. Nevertheless, he kept moving on together with his companion (…) and to divert any suspicion from the minds of the Turks that were riding past them, every now and then he sang merry songs in their language. [All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers]
The Ottomans seemed poised to overwhelm the Austrian forces, when King John arrived with an army of 60,000, and routed the much larger invading army. The Ottomans left behind many sacks of coffee, along with “25,000 tents, 10,000 oxen, 5,000 camels, 100,000 bushels of grain, a great quantity of gold.”
After the dust had settled, when no one else expressed an interest in the beans, Kolschitzky himself volunteered to take them, and established the first Turkish coffee booth serving the residents of Vienna. The tradition of pairing coffee with crescent-shaped rolls, aka croissants, comes from the celebration of the triumph of Christendom over the Islamic crescent.
Had the coffee-drinking Ottomans been weakened by their excessive use of the stimulant — their senses dulled? My hunch is that they were, and that coffee played a pivotal role in the outcome of the Siege of Vienna. As with any drug, the effects of caffeine wear off, at which point a higher dose is required to achieve the same result. Perhaps the success of the Ottoman invasion was fueled by the initial high, but when it came time to fend off the later arrivals from Poland, the Ottoman armies had depleted themselves (maybe adrenal fatigue?).
In any event, while the Ottoman Empire was forced to retreat, their unintentional export soon took the city by storm and, soon after, coffee invaded the rest of Europe in the Turks’ stead.
Coffee and Creative Cultivation Mode
As interesting as this early history of coffee may be, we still have not answered the question of why modern workers — especially so-called “knowledge workers” — drink it in such high quantities.
In the four centuries following the unlikely defeat of the Ottomans in Vienna, a well-caffeinated Europe would come to dominate the world economic system with its ideas for efficient production, transportation, and marketing of an array of goods and services never before imagined. Both commercial and intellectual ideas — the bedrock of this newfound prosperity — moved at ramming speed in the minds of men and women, and the most successful were reprinted and replicated around the globe.
Jürgen Habermas has argued that the Enlightenment was a product of a “bourgeois public sphere” for the discussion and transformations of opinions. These discussions were likely facilitated by coffeehouses as gathering places for thinking people — similar to taverns, but with a stimulant instead of a depressant as the fuel for discussion.
Prolific thinkers and writers like Voltaire and Kierkegaard drank supernatural quantities, as did literary genius Honore de Balzac, who wrote:
“This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.”
Balzac’s delightful prose perfectly encapsulates the way that caffeine exaggerates our mental capacities and enhances abstract, metaphorical abilities. The modern world, with its emphasis on the written word and the symbolic, has become lopsided — requiring people to augment their natural focus to fit an unnatural new tempo brought about by industrial production.
Again, no one can say how much of this change we can fairly attribute to coffee, but common experience validates the idea that one can get much more done in much less time under the influence of coffee. It also makes the ho-hum pace of our increasingly bureaucratic desk jobs more manageable — even fun. Finally, from time to time it seems to make the light-bulb go off, resulting in a truly new idea. As with anything, there are costs and benefits. This is a clear benefit.
The Cost of Always Being On
Stress is the cost of this battle-ready state of mind. Increased alertness and productivity are associated with spikes in the stress hormone, Cortisol. Like dopamine, Cortisol is a naturally-occurring chemical. The adrenal glands secrete Cortisol in the morning to help you wake up, and send signals throughout the day to slow you down or speed you up. Caffeine artificially spikes Cortisol; when you drink it every morning, your body learns to moderate its natural response to waking up and reduces Cortisol levels until you’ve had your first cup. If you keep blocking adenosine from binding to its receptors, you can eventually overtax your adrenal glands and end up with adrenal fatigue.
Getting back to Hébert’s ideas around physical fitness, we can understand why he would not want his soldiers to artificially induce a state of battle-readiness — much less to make it their waking baseline. In his exercise manuals, he routinely refers to techniques for developing “cold-blood,” or an “even-keel” (Hébert was a sailor). These qualities allow a soldier to detect when danger is actually present and respond instinctively, as opposed to the over-caffeinated soldier who might miss the signal and sleep through the battle, or perceive a danger when there is none.
Running and swimming, particularly in the cold elements without protective clothing, are his recommended ways to enhance this natural alertness without the inevitable crash of caffeine. These are also stressors, but they are acute (i.e., short-lived) instead of chronic. Chronic stress is one of the leading undiagnosed causes of illness in the modern world, making our inflated productivity from caffeine somewhat suspect if we have to pay the price in sick days and premature burnout.
As a final point, caffeine increases ambition in the early stages of a project, but requires increasing quantities to sustain the motivation. There is probably a parallel to be made between these psychological dynamics and the economic system they sustain. A world that requires ever-increasing spending and debt to avoid collapse also requires ever-intensifying doses of drugs to think it all worthwhile. The invention of the mortgage-backed security is not altogether unrelated to the invention of Red Bull.
What’s a caffeine addict to do?
The step-ladder method for weaning off addictions is the best way to get back to your baseline tonic transmission of dopamine. Try tea instead of coffee. Have one cup instead of two, and do it a few hours after waking up so your body’s natural cortisol response is not altered. If you want to go the extreme route, try a cold shower or a sprint session first thing instead of coffee, and save your caffeine-fueled work binges for one or two days per week.
If you begin to doubt what you can accomplish without caffeine, just think of King John Sobieski III and his sober-minded march through the Ottoman’s vacated tent city. Or, if that’s not your style, let your body regulate itself to its natural level of alertness and take tasks as they come.