Coffee, the modern world and me

The following is from an article called “The plants that change our consciousness” by Sophia McBain in the New Statesman.

It is no coincidence that caffeine and the minute-hand on clocks arrived at around the same historical moment, the acclaimed food and nature writer Michael Pollan argues in his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants

Both spread across Europe as laborers began leaving the fields, where work is organised around the sun, for the factories, where shift-workers could no longer adhere to their natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness.

Would capitalism even have been possible without caffeine?  The introduction of caffeine to Europe in the early 17th century coincided with the waning of the mystical medieval mindset and the rise of the cool-headed rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Before the arrival of tea and coffee, alcohol was the safest thing to drink – or at least, safer than most water – so perhaps it is little wonder that the permanently sozzled intellectuals of the Middle Ages were prone to magical thinking.  In contrast, caffeine can intensify “spotlight consciousness,” which illuminates a single point of attention, enhancing our reasoning skills.

Voltaire had such faith in coffee’s power to sharpen his mind that he is said to have drunk up to 72 cups a day.  Balzac sometimes dispensed with drinking coffee altogether and instead ate the grounds for a more powerful hit.


Pollan is certainly ambivalent about the role caffeine has played in facilitating modern capitalism – the way in which it enables us to keep up with the pace of 21st-century living, often at the expense of restorative sleep.

Many of the sleep researchers Pollan speaks to have given up coffee because they note that, even if it doesn’t keep you awake, caffeine robs you of the deep sleep that makes you feel rested.  When you struggle to function without your morning coffee, it could be that you’re reaching for caffeine to solve the problem it created.

Caffeine is so widely used and normalized that we don’t think of it as a drug or notice how it alters our minds.  Research into its effects is often hampered by the difficulty of finding people who aren’t already dependent on it.

One drug researcher told Pollan he developed an interest in caffeine because of his own “revolting behavior”: in urgent need of a fix, he’d once downed a cup of frozen coffee grounds mixed with warm tap water.

Pollan gave up caffeine for a few months as a self-experiment, and was surprised by how fuzzy-headed and under-confident he felt, even after the initial withdrawal symptoms had worn off. 

I was surprised to read this too, because he only drinks a cup of “half-caff” in the morning, green tea, and the occasional afternoon cappuccino – nothing compared to the alarming quantities of black filter coffee I rely on to get through the day

I’ll always remember my own first cup of coffee.  I was attending a reception for new freshman at my college.  Somebody gave me a cup of coffee, and asked me whether I wanted cream and sugar.  I blurted out, “I always take my coffee black.”  I drank it.  It tasted horrible.

But I soon became an addicted coffee drinker, and have been so for the rest of my life.  I prided myself on being able to stay up late, and function in the morning, and I needed coffee for that.  I guess it is typical of young men to want to test their physical limits, one way or another.

After college and military service, I became a newspaper reporter.  In that era, reporters were stereotypically heavy coffee drinkers, cigarette smokers and beer drinkers.  Cigarettes and coffee aided concentration as you worked on deadline; alcohol afterwards helped you unwind from the stress.  I don’t know whether reporters are still like that; I suspect they are not.

I never smoked, but I depended on coffee to function throughout the day.  Then I stayed up late because I was unable to get to sleep, and needed coffee to be alert the next morning.  Sometimes on days off I slept around the clock to catch up on my sleep deficit.

I had nightmares of being a survivor of an airplane crash, and being unable to function because I had no coffee.

When I retired, I gave up coffee for a time and was surprised at how little I needed it.  But then I started drinking one cup in the morning (a blend of skim milk, instant coffee and instant cocoa, which is mainly sugar) and now I am up to two cups.  I need them.  If I drink them before 10 a.m., they don’t interfere with my sleep.

Would I drink coffee if I could stay awake and alert without it?  Probably, yes.

I never tried opium or mescaline, the other two drugs Pollan wrote about in his new book.


The plants that change our consciousness by Sophie McBain for the New Statesman.

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4 Responses to “Coffee, the modern world and me”

  1. davidgmarkham Says:

    Hi Phil:

    I love my coffee. I have been addicted several times and withdrawn myself which only makes the resumption that much more enjoyable.

    I have read the literature on the pros and cons of coffee and it has teeter tottered over the years, but the last I have read seems to conclude that the pros outweigh the cons.

    It’s one of those small indulgences that I grant myself because it makes my life that much more worth living.

    I’m going to get my second cup of the day right now.

    Have a great day whether caffeinated or not.


  2. libbaxgmailcom Says:

    Yes, in Persia coffee was considered evil!


  3. Catxman Says:

    Coffee has little effect on me. I wonder if something’s wrong with my biosystem for this to be so. I can drink it and the taste rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t provide that “jolt” that other people seem to get from it. It’s too bad, really, as it seems to be the one legal drug that is relatively harmless to imbibe.

    — Catxman

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m with Caxtman on this. We have coffee at breakfast for the pleasant aroma & taste but have no sense of it as a liquid pep-pill or addiction to same. Can’t help considering this notion as another import from America in the first place; subsequently promoted and finally embraced. Thanks, guys, you’ve won us over.

    Over here in England, tea is our main conveyor of caffeine, and in this house it’s made in the pot from loose tea (never bags) as a twice-daily ritual.


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