Caffeine, Consciousness, and Capitalism

Caffeine, Consciousness, and Capitalism

It is the early 1600s – Britain and the rest of the world were in a pre-industrial age. As we learnt in history class, labour was dispersed in rural areas, with efforts in a working day reserved almost exclusively to farming. In this tough, Malthusian world, people were expected to live to 35 and 40% of the population died before reaching adulthood.[i] As the story goes, at some point along the way, the population began to congregate in factory cities where specialisation in tasks and greater trade would see the exponential rise in production, nutrition, and material welfare we have seen proliferate in market economies until the present day. When historians, anthropologists, and economists account for this sudden shift into a new Dickensian world of long working days and grand-scale mechanised production, the cause is rightly attributed to developments in technology and benefits from the division of labour – Adam Smith’s famous pin factory comes to mind. Accompanying this economic and technological revolution, the culture too was transforming as the renaissance art, literature and philosophy of Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Montaigne gave way to a new era of enlightenment rationalism, characteristic of Bentham, Smith, and Voltaire. Clearly, the rapid-changing livelihoods of the industrial age ushered in a new form of consciousness and changed the way humans attend to the world.

Hidden in the periphery of this tumultuous period of history was a marked change in what people were drinking. In the pre-industrial farms of Britain, workers would almost exclusively drink ale (i.e. beer) throughout the working day, and did so for a very logical reason. The fermentation process involved in the production of ale meant that it was often the safest liquid to consume, and the calories it contained were also a vital source of nutrition. It was only after imported coffee was introduced to Oxford from 1650 that the new, caffeinated hot drink became popularised across Britain. This rise of imported coffee inadvertently led to a significant boost to public health, as the newly created need to boil water for consumption coupled with coffee’s benefits for the human gut microbiome improved living conditions substantially. Beyond such unexpected public health effects, coffee’s mind-altering property helped usher in the new caffeinated world of industrial capitalism, heightening attention to the more precise tasks of factory work and in doing so, marked a pronounced step away from the foggy, ale-infused world of pre-industrial farm life.

The pervasiveness of coffee consumption has obviously expanded to the present day, as now 90% of the world consumes a caffeinated drink every day[ii]. If you are like me and belong to this addicted population, what we commonly consider our ‘default’ and ‘sober’ experience of the world is in fact infused with this mysterious drug. As the platitude goes, us coffee-drinkers are the proverbial fish unaware we’re swimming in water. This gives rise to a simultaneously fascinating yet unanswered question: what effect, if any, does this drug have on our everyday experience of the world? The only way to begin to answer this question and better understand our relationship to caffeine must be to observe what happens when we take it out of our lives. Seeing as I personally lack such willpower in the investigative pursuit of writing this article, consulting the science and history of the introduction of coffee and tea to the western world seems like a reasonable alternative.

Studies on the effect of caffeine on cognitive processes find that it enhances performance across a range of functions including vigilance, memory, focus, attention, and learning.[iii] An experiment in the 1930s found that chess players on caffeine performed better than those who abstained. Likewise, in a 2014 study, the subjects who were given caffeine before learning new material remembered it better than those given a placebo.[iv] A significant impediment to research into caffeine is the fact that its use is so widespread. It is simply difficult for researchers to test the effects of caffeine when the control group is in the throes of withdrawal, which includes symptoms of headache, fatigue, anxiety and dysphoria. Despite this difficulty, the current consensus among researchers is that caffeine consumption makes our cognitive processes faster and more efficient, though it does not necessarily make us smarter.

Returning to the historical episode in 17th century Europe, the introduction of imported coffee from Egypt brought with it a new social institution – the Coffee House. This new setting became so popular across Europe that at its peak, there was a Coffee House for every 200 Londoners[v]. Coffee Houses in England particularly became lively spaces where the financial, political, and intellectual news of the day was as much the draw as the coffee. They were also distinctly civil and democratic spaces, as they would draw in men (unfortunately no women) from all social classes and unlike taverns, the tradition was that if you started an argument, you were expected to buy a round for everyone. In this sense the rise of the English Coffee House represented not only a new social space, but also a whole new kind of communication medium. The coffee would cost a penny, but the information received in the form of conversation, books and magazines was free. For this reason, they were often called “penny universities”. The London Stock Exchange has its roots in the trades conducted at Jonathon’s Coffee House. Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley debated physics and mathematics at the Grecian Coffee House which became closely associated with the Royal Society, where it is supposed that they dissected a dolphin on site. In his book, A History of The World in 6 Glasses, author Tom Standage writes that coffeehouses “provided an entirely new environment for social, intellectual, commercial and political exchange”, making those in London what he calls “The crucibles of the scientific and financial revolutions that shaped the modern world”[vi].

Increased focus and concentration brought with it substantial economic benefits. England’s introduction to coffee came at the same time as minute hands were introduced on clocks. There was now a need for refined, complicated tasks such as double-entry accounting which were made possible with the aid of a highly focussed, caffeinated workforce. Moreover, the drug’s ability to disrupt circadian rhythms enabled longer shifts and allowed factories to work into the night.

The enhancing effect of caffeine in our working lives has been similarly pronounced in the modern world. Michael Pollan, in the section he devotes to the influence of caffeine in his new book, This Is Your Mind On Plants, recounts the story of the first official ‘coffee break’ in US company policy[vii]. The term ‘coffee break’ emerged in the 1950s from two companies in Buffalo who had lost many of their employees to the war effort. After hiring older labourers and becoming frustrated with their lower productivity, management at the Barcalo Manufacturing Company introduced two fifteen-minute breaks in the afternoon and evening, supplying their workers with coffee and tea. To their surprise, the caffeinated older workers became more efficient and could complete as much in an 8-hour working day as their younger counterparts.[viii] Encouraged by the productivity gains, management at Barcolo made the coffee breaks mandatory. Viewing them as break time, they docked workers 30 minutes from their pay. This caused them to fall below the federal minimum wage, prompting the US Department of Labour to sue Barcalo. The company ultimately lost in the Supreme Court, as the judge found that the breaks were “at least equally beneficial to the employer in that they promote more efficiency and result in greater output”, and “this increased production is one of the primary factors, if not the prime factor, which leads the employer to institute such break periods.”[ix] This ruling enshrined the paid coffee break into the American work life and has since become popularised across the globe, affirming the economic viability of giving employees free coffee and tea, and paying them to enjoy it.

So far I have chronicled the immense impact of caffeine since its introduction to the western world. It now seems fitting to wonder: where’s the catch? The immediate answer that springs to mind for most people is the fact it’s so addictive. While we may be inclined to look down upon dependence on any drug, there seems to be nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with said addiction provided we have a steady supply, and there is no substantial risk to our health and sleep.

A major drawback to the rise of caffeine may instead be found at the issue of procuring coffee and tea. “It appears a very strange thing,” David Davies, an English cleric, observed in the late 1700s, “that the common people of any European nation should be obliged to use, as part of their daily diet, two articles imported from opposite sides of the earth.”[x] The uptake of caffeinated drinks was as much indicative of the rise of colonialism than the addictive nature of the plants. Tea became the national drink of England through its colonies in India and Asia, while the Dutch and French had more ample access to coffee. By the early 1800s, Coffee was directly implicated in slavery, especially in Brazil, where coffee growers imported large numbers of slaves from Africa to work on their plantations[xi]. To this day, while it no longer arrives from the backs of African slaves and colonial plantations, the intricate supply chain that delivers us our daily coffee is largely invisible. The farming requires laborious hand-picking, which is done by poor rural workers in tropical countries. Of the $4.50 latte we buy, only a few cents will reach the farmers who grew the beans.

Another ‘catch’ may be found in cognitive science. It remains unclear whether caffeine enhances creativity, with some researchers hypothesising that it may in fact have a diminishing effect. While it may improve focus and concentration to enhance linear and abstract thinking, creativity is thought to operate differently. It may be the loss in focus and concentration that lets the mind ‘off the hook’ of linear thoughts into a more creative realm. While this result hasn’t been completely endorsed in the field, many researchers studying creativity agree that it is induced by a degree of ‘mind wandering’, which is likely to be reduced by caffeine consumption.[xii]

If wine is the drink of Dionysus, then coffee is that of Apollo. Cognitive psychologists often talk in terms of two distinct forms 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 focussed yet illuminates a broader field. Young children tend to exhibit more lantern consciousness and its more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering and making novel associations – all of which are supposed to nourish creativity. This duality in consciousness is explored by psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist in his interdisciplinary work, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of The Western World. Drawing on studies of people with brain injuries and developments in the 4e tradition of neuroscience, he attempts to integrate cognitive science and philosophical conceptions of consciousness, doing so explaining our experience as mediated by a tension between the two asymmetrical hemispheres of the human brain[xiii]. McGilchrist dives into the processes of both hemispheres of the brain and describes the difference in their processing based not so much on ‘what’ functions they enact, but in ‘how’ they function. He attributes what continental philosophers call the phenomenology of being (from Heidegger), or our experience of the world, as made manifest through the way we attend to it. In other words, the reality we discover in the world is highly dependent on the type of attention we pay to it. As McGilchrist notes, caffeine likely advances the left hemisphere processes and intensifies spotlight attention, making us more efficient and goal-oriented, at the expense of some level of creativity and openness to new pathways. To put it metaphorically, caffeine may help us to better see the part at the expense of the whole. Although this observation oversteps well beyond the scientific evidence and is undeniably oversimplified, it may nonetheless be useful purely as a metaphor and providing a lens to make sense of caffeine’s place in the world.

Caffeine has clearly made a splash in its rise to popularity across the world, but has this been for the better? From one camp, looking at caffeine’s impact on us as a civilisation, it has clearly helped lift us out of an elemental state to drive innovation and technological development. But whether caffeine has been a positive development for us as a species is a far more subjective question. The answer likely depends on one’s broader attitude to the trade-offs embedded in modern life and capitalism. On the more cynical side, Philosopher Michel Foucalt’s concept of ‘body discipline’ could be invoked to caffeine use as a means to biologically bend ourselves to the wheel of the machine and the requirements of the economic order. From this perspective, caffeine is an enslaving drug, speeding us up and making us more productive workers so that we can better keep pace with the man-made machinery of modern life. But this perspective seems overly pessimistic and doesn’t account well for all the positive activities we can take part in with the help of caffeine. Either way, people have clearly become more focussed and efficient since switching their morning dose from ale to coffee, although this change has also come with a trade-off of some unknowable significance.


[i] Lambert, T. (2021). A HISTORY OF LIFE EXPECTANCY IN THE UK. https://localhistories.org/a-history-of-life-expectancy-in-the-uk/

[ii] 24 Remarkable Caffeine Consumption Statistics . (2019). Health Research Funding. https://healthresearchfunding.org/remarkable-caffeine-consumption-statistics/

[iii] Nehlig, A. (2010). Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer? Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 1, 86-94. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-2010-091315

[iv] Pollan, M. (2021, July 6,). The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/jul/06/caffeine-coffee-tea-invisible-addiction-is-it-time-to-give-up

[v] Pollan, M. (2021). This is Your Mind On Plants. Penguin Press.

[vi] Standage, T. (2005). A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Walker & Co.

[vii] Pollan, M. (2021). This is Your Mind On Plants. Penguin Press.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological science23(10), 1117–1122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612446024

[xiii] McGilchrist, I. (2005). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Vintage.