Humans + Caffeine = magic
Reflections on the role of coffee in history, why cyclists drink espresso, and why tea can be better than coffee
There’s a game I play a few times a year where I try to stop drinking caffeine. Often I do this after a week with multiple bad nights of sleep that lead to me drinking too much coffee. “I won’t drink any more coffee,” I tell myself and I then suffer all the withdrawal side-effects for a few days or weeks. Inevitably I eventually return to my old habits.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I decided to play this game again but while I was suffering without coffee I found myself reading Michael Pollan’s book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants” as there’s a whole chapter on caffeine’s impact on the world. The takeaway is that we live in a human+caffeine world - caffeine from tea, coffee and soda, is so pervasive in our society that it’s basically an invisible layer that has altered human history and consciousness for hundreds of years.
Caffeine changed civilization’s “mental weather”
One of the key insights is that caffeine gives us humans a very specific ability to focus:
Cognitive psychologists sometimes talk in terms of two distinct types of consciousness: spotlight consciousness, which illuminates a single focal point of attention, making it very good for reasoning, and lantern consciousness, in which attention is less focused yet illuminates a broader field of attention.
Young children tend to exhibit lantern consciousness; so do many people on psychedelics. This more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering, free association, and the making of novel connections—all of which can nourish creativity.
By comparison, caffeine’s big contribution to human progress has been to intensify spotlight consciousness—the focused, linear, abstract, and efficient cognitive processing more closely associated with mental work than with play. This, more than anything else, is what made caffeine the perfect drug not only for the age of reason and the Enlightenment but for the rise of capitalism, too.
Prior to coffee and tea, Europe (and England in particular) lived in a perpetual fog - it was common to drink ale three times a day since it was the cleanest form of beverage.
Imagine if everyone around was drinking alcohol at least three times a day. How cloudy the world must have seemed! Now imagine they all swapped over to coffee and tea. This is literally England in the 17th century. “[As] it happens, coffee, tea, and chocolate (which also contains caffeine) arrived in England during the same decade—the 1650s—so we can gain some idea of the world before caffeine and after. […] It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the arrival of caffeine in Europe changed . . . everything.”
Coffee and tea ushered in a shift in the mental weather, sharpening minds that had been fogged by alcohol, freeing people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, thus making possible whole new kinds of work and, arguably, new kinds of thought, too. Having brought what amounted to a new form of consciousness to Europe, caffeine went on to influence everything from global trade to imperialism, the slave trade, the workplace, the sciences, politics, social relations, arguably even the rhythms of English prose.
After the 1650s there was no turning back. By some estimates 90% of adults consume caffeine in some form daily all around the world. It is and has been the fuel on which human minds operate for hundreds of years. Caffeine is everywhere. Almost every single person reading this post uses caffeine every single day and likely has for most of their lives.
After reading Pollan, I started to see caffeine’s impact everywhere around me. I can’t unsee it... I was reading through “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” which has 161 small vignettes on famous people’s routines throughout the centuries, and I saw coffee and tea in almost every single one. Often coupled with nicotine (the other omni-present human stimulant of choice) coffee and tea rituals are everywhere. Here are a few examples (from flipping randomly flipping through the book):
Thomas Wolfe: “Wolfe typically began writing around midnight, “priming himself with awesome quantities of tea and coffee”
Thomas Mann: “After getting out of bed, he drank a cup of coffee with his wife, took a bath and dressed.” “His morning grind over, Mann had lunch in his studio and enjoyed his first cigar… At 5:00, Mann rejoined the family for tea.”
Kierkegaard: “Kierkegaard kept up his energy with coffee, usually taken after supper and a glass of sherry.” “[He] had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up to the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.”
Anne Rice: “She keeps writing into the afternoon, taking breaks to stretch her legs, look out the window and drink a “massive amount” of Diet Coke on ice.”
Caffeine can drive improved mood and focus which in turn drive motivation. None of this is that surprising when you really think about it, but daily global caffeine consumption wasn’t the case until just a few centuries ago - for most of human history these magical potions weren’t available. When I read stories of technological and economic progress since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, they almost all ignore caffeine - this seems like a massive omission. My guess is it’s because caffeine is so pervasive we can’t even imagine a world without it. From Pollan:
Wine and beer did not go away, yet the European mind had been pried loose from alcohol’s grip, freeing it for the new kinds of thinking that caffeine helped to foster. You can argue what came first, but the kind of magical thinking that alcohol sponsored in the medieval mind began in the seventeenth century to yield to a new spirit of rationalism and, a bit later, Enlightenment thinking. Continues Michelet:
“Coffee, the sober drink, the mighty nourishment of the brain, which unlike other spirits, heightens purity and lucidity; coffee, which clears the clouds of the imagination and their gloomy weight; which illumines the reality of things suddenly with the flash of truth.”
To see, lucidly, “the reality of things”: this was, in a nutshell, the rationalist project. Coffee became, along with the microscope, the telescope, and the pen, one of its indispensable tools. But unlike the others, this was a tool that was taken up in the brain and mind. […]
The enthusiasm for coffee among intellectuals in both England and France reflected, perhaps, its novelty as much as its power: new drugs always seem miraculous, and for that reason are often credited with astounding properties and consumed to excess. Voltaire was a fervent advocate for coffee, and supposedly drank as many as seventy-two cups a day. Coffee, and coffeehouses, fueled heroic labors in Enlightenment writers. Denis Diderot compiled his magnum opus while imbibing caffeine at the Café de Procope. It’s safe to say the Encyclopédie would never have gotten finished in a tavern.
Why do bike shops serve espresso?
The day I started drinking coffee again after my last break, I was bouncing off the walls. The power of a cup of coffee after going cold turkey is something to behold. I plowed through an enormity of work and that evening, after a 12 hour workday, I biked for an hour non-stop way way more intensely than normal. What was going on?
Upon further research into coffee and cycling, it turns out that in addition to improving my mood and focus, my cup of coffee was also doping: Caffeine was banned as a controlled substance in cycling until just a few decades ago:
Caffeine wasn’t always allowed in cycling. It was added to the list of banned substances by the IOC in 1984 and WADA in 2000. The use of caffeine remained prohibited until 2004, when the ban was lifted. Since caffeine was deregulated, its use among athletes (particularly with those competing in aerobically-focused sports) has steadily increased. A study that tested caffeine levels in doping control urine samples found that cyclist, along with athletics athletes and rowers, consume the most caffeine of all Olympic sport athletes.
I always thought cyclists drinking espresso was just a result of their strong interest in coffee and Italian roots but it turns out it’s actually a massive performance enhancer:
[Coffee] has deep roots in [cycling’s] long history of using any substance possible to gain a racing advantage. Before WWII, it was brandy and cigarettes, then it was amphetamines. By the mid-1970s, the sport started to realize that maybe having a star drop dead on the Ventoux wasn’t so good and got mildly serious about enforcing the anti-doping rules. The one stimulant that was cheap, legal, and widely available? Caffeine. [And specifically espresso.]
Why espresso? Mostly because it’s the most caffeine for the smallest portion. Also because the sport has been dominated by Italians for a long time. If Americans had dominated, I suppose Jolt cola would still be a thing. [Note: espresso also is smallest volume which means you need to pee less which is good if you’re on a long bike ride.]
The Italian breakfast espresso bar concept [also] fits perfectly into what a convenient biking break is. High caffeine coffee knocked back in a few sips and a few bites of carb-y pastry, and you're off again.
Upon further research I found that the amount of caffeine one can consume to boost cycling performance is actually super high:
Aerobic endurance appears to be the form of exercise with the most consistent moderate-to-large benefits from caffeine use, although the magnitude of its effects differs between individuals.
Caffeine has consistently been shown to improve exercise performance when consumed in doses of 3–6 mg/kg body mass. Minimal effective doses of caffeine currently remain unclear but they may be as low as 2 mg/kg body mass.
For my weight this is about 210-420 mg of caffeine for “optimal performance.” That is the equivalent of 7-14 Diet Cokes or 3-6 espresso shots one hour prior to racing!! That’s bananas!
Is tea a better daily drink than coffee?
In researching for this article I became aware of just how pervasive caffeine is in my life and how unlikely I am to ever stop drinking it. It’s a sine qua non of our world. But there is one thing that did stick with me and that is that tea is probably a better daily drink than coffee. Unlike coffee, it seems teas have a compound called l-theanine that counteracts caffeine to provide much of the same focus without the anxiety. For example:
[Matcha has] almost as much caffeine as coffee but is also very high in l-theanine, a unique compound that reduces stress and helps produce a state of calm and focus. Together, the caffeine and l-theanine present in matcha work to improve cognitive function and clarity, making matcha an ideal tea for aiding studying and boosting brainpower.
Matcha is not unique though. Green teas, black teas, pu’er, etc., all have l-theanine. Matcha, however, is a powdered tea which makes combining it with other things easy. This combination is also one of the reasons you’ll see articles suggesting mixing matcha in which coffee to recreate the l-theanine + caffeine effects.
Of course, tea also doesn’t provide quite the same energy boost as coffee and it doesn’t have the same flavors… However, now that I know about l-theanine, I might shift my daily rituals to tea and keep coffee for special occasions when I need the extra oomph.
And with that, I’ll close this post. While my intention at one point was to write about how I try to drink less caffeine, in researching and writing this post I realized that ultimately that isn’t something that will ever happen (or at least not for any prolonged time period). Tea and coffee play a special role in our civilization. I am now just going back in a bit more clear-eyed into how big a role caffeine plays.
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