Many people knock back a cup of coffee every morning with the goal of doing better on a test or jumping into a backlog of work … or just to feel remotely human. Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in North America—some 90 percent of the adult population consumes it for its mentally arousing effects. But a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that the time of day and your age may influence coffee’s influence on your memory.
Memory, of course, is a key component of learning, retention, and performance in a number of areas of our lives. Explicit memory, lead author Stephanie Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Boston College, tells mental_floss, “is just conscious recall of info.” Implicit memory, on the other hand, which researchers call “priming,” is the unconscious recall of previously learned information. More specifically, if something you’ve recently encountered happens to be in the forefront of your mind, “you’re more likely to recall it without being conscious you recalled it because you previously saw it,” she explains.
Sherman became intrigued by a study her professor Lee Ryan conducted that explored the relationship between caffeine and implicit and explicit memory in older adults. Ryan’s study showed that caffeine enhanced memory performance in older adults in their non-optimal time of day: the afternoon. But caffeine had no effect on their memory in the morning, Sherman says. She wanted to find out if this would hold true in young adults, whose circadian rhythms are different, making afternoon their optimal time of day for physiological arousal—essentially, in how awake they feel—and morning their non-optimal time.
To test this hypothesis, she and her colleagues designed a double-blind experiment with college students aged 18 to 21. The first group of students came into the lab between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. Half of these participants received a cup of caffeinated coffee, and the others got decaffeinated; regardless of which cup they received, they were told their coffee was caffeinated. That procedure was repeated with a second group of 40 participants in the afternoon between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. Sherman’s team theorized that caffeine would have memory-boosting effects for young adults in their non-optimal time of day—early morning—but to determine the specificity of caffeine’s effects, they also investigated the effects on memory performance of two types of exercise in the early morning—vigorous aerobic exercise and gentle stretching.
“We thought another way of increasing physiological arousal would be exercise. If just being more awake increases your memory performance, than exercise would have the same effect [as caffeine],” Sherman reports.
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