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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

On Caffeine

Hi all.  It’s great to be back on (or near) the glorious fifth anniversary of Prawfs’ entrée into the blawgosphere.  I’ve just gotten back to SoCal from Michigan, where I participated in the Junior Scholars in IP Workshop at MSU (which was an outstanding conference—mad props to organizers Adam Candeub, Sean Pager, and Rob Heverly) and then visited some friends in Ann Arbor who teach at the University of Michigan.  It was a fun trip, but a little challenging in terms of schedule. Michigan is on Eastern Time, which kind of wrecked my body clock, and as a result I found myself chugging caffeinated beverages pretty much nonstop in order to maintain max alertness.

This isn’t really too different from my daily life, which typically involves some constant intake of caffeine whether working or at leisure.  If I were constantly ingesting any other drug, it would be clear cause for concern, but caffeine is so normalized (and relatively harmless when compared to other drugs, obviously) that I’ve grown to accept it as a background feature of my life.  From time to time though, I wonder about this.  Should I cut down on caffeine for health or other reasons?  Is it a problem that I find myself at my most productive when caffeinated?  Do other lawprofs have the same love-hate relationship with caffeine that I do? 

I answer these questions, and offer more thoughts about my favorite performance-enhancing drug below the fold.

Little needs to be said about the merits of wonderful caffeine.  It soothes me, it refreshes my soul.  It gives me energy when I’m feeling run down.  It is a particularly good match for me because I’m a high-energy person to begin with, so caffeine enhances my natural state (admittedly, some might not think this so wonderful).  For writing, it focuses the attention and sharpens the mind.  For teaching, I’ve found it to be a virtually indispensible aid, at least when used in moderation.  Two consecutive hours of property (or three consecutive hours of copyright, which I did last semester) can be a long time to maintain focus and concentration, and having a caffeine boost has proven enormously helpful to me in this maintenance.

But caffeine is, after all, a drug.  It may not be scheduled by the Controlled Substances Act, but it has many of the same psychoactive qualities as much more dangerous and addictive stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine (though caffeine’s impact is much weaker).  Its diuretic effects can strain the kidneys and weaken the bones (by leaching nutrients at a faster-than-optimal rate), and the vehicles that deliver it (Diet Coke especially) can include all manner of bad-for-you and even carcinogenic chemicals.  And having just finished lauding the pro-writing and –teaching properties of caffeine, the big caveat (for me, at least) is that in excess quantities, caffeine can be counterproductive to both endeavors.  If I drink too much tea, I may find myself too jittery to concentrate for long stretches of writing at the keyboard.  And if I overimbibe in class, I can find myself rushing through material and speaking too fast. 

So if there’s an insight here (big “if”), it may be that the virtues of caffeine are found, like most things, in moderation.

Finally, my above reference to caffeine as a performance-enhancing drug is kind of a joke, but only kind of.  Caffeine can increase one’s performance in mental and physical tasks, at least in certain settings and as long as you don’t consume too much (e.g., I once chugged a massive coffee right before a 90-minute crim midterm and ended up losing 10min of exam time when I had to sprint down the hall mid-test to a distantly located bathroom).  But as a practical matter, the effects are probably pretty marginal, because caffeine doesn’t really make that much of a psychoactive impact, and because it’s available to everyone (though maybe Mormons would have a beef).

But it’s certainly possible to imagine other PEDs in an academic setting that might create more concern.  There was a New Yorker piece a couple years back discussing the effects of drugs like Adderall and Provigil on concentration and test performance.  It’s not hard to imagine a drug that could help enhance long-term concentration, or even creativity of thought.  Imagine that a law professor went from writing pedestrian stuff to publishing groundbreaking work thanks to newfangled pharmaceuticals.  Is this a problem?  I know I wouldn’t object to it in other professions.  If surgeons could do a better job operating thanks to narcotics, or if medical researchers could find a cure for cancer more quickly by ingesting concentration- or thought-enhancing drugs, then pill-pop away, docs! 

And with that half-facetious provocation at a blessed end, I will bring this introductory guest-blogpost to a close.  The late afternoon approaches;  I need some coffee.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 6, 2010 at 05:37 PM in Food and Drink | Permalink


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I actually own a caffeine t-shirt -- it has the molecule printed on it. Re: caffeine as a diuretic, research casts doubt on that claim, unless you consider water a diuretic too: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/health/nutrition/04real.html

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 7, 2010 1:32:58 AM


See above for Caffeine as actual performance enhancing substance in the athletic context.

Posted by: keith | Apr 7, 2010 9:37:58 AM

Wow, it looks like the NYT is captured by the pro-caffeine lobby. I like the idea that caffeine is not necessarily a diuretic, so I'm going to choose to believe that. The idea of caffeine as a PED makes lots of sense. Anecdotally, I've heard of soccer players in Argentina regularly ingesting loads of yerba mate before playing in order to amp themselves up (similarly, tea at halftime used to be an English soccer tradition). I think there was a cyclist who got dinged from a race after an excess of caffeine was found in his blood; he'd had a triple espresso before a race. And when I used to run long distances, I found that a five-hour energy was a surefire way to help me knock off runs in excess of an hour.

Posted by: Dave | Apr 7, 2010 10:14:15 AM

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