90% of the world's adults consume some form of caffeine everyday, making it the most widely used psychoactive drug on Earth.
Michael Pollan, author of "This Is Your Mind On Plants," explains why.
Michael goes into the history of coffee drinking, breaking down its origins and how it benefits humankind.
- [Narrator] 90% Of the world'sadults consume some formof caffeine every day,making it the most widely usedpsychoactive drug on earth.Michael Pollan,best-selling author of bookson plant pharmacology explains why.- A very strong case can bemade that caffeine contributedto the Enlightenment and the Age of Reasonand the Industrial Revolution,all of which required us to thinkin much more focused, linear terms.Caffeine was an amazing aidto the rise of capitalism.[contemplative music]- [Narrator] Compared to other beverages,coffee is a relative newcomer,spreading slowly from Africa,through the Middle Eastand into the West onlya few centuries ago.Yet, it's hard to evenimagine a world without it.- Before caffeine comes to Europe,people were drunk orbuzzed most of the day.People would have alcohol with breakfast.Water was contaminated with disease,but alcohol, because ofthe fermentation process,would kill a lot of microbes.So you gave your kidshard cider in the morning.There were beer breaks on farms.People addled on alcohol arenot gonna be so rational,are not gonna be solinear in their thinkingand are not gonna be so energetic.- [Narrator] Coffee consumption,along with tea and chocolate,all of which have caffeine,became widespread inEurope in the 17th century,and coffee houses poppedup all over London.- So there were coffee housesdedicated to literature,and writers and poetswould congregate there.There was a coffee housededicated to selling stock,and that turned into the LondonStock Exchange, eventually.There was another onededicated to science,tied to the Royal Institutionwhere great scientists of theperiod would get together,and Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan,Voltaire, the Enlightenment figure,apparently had 72 cups a day.I don't know quite how you do that.Diderot wrote theencyclopedia on caffeine.This new, sober,more civil drink was changingthe way people thoughtand the way they worked.Once you're doing workwith machinery, indoors,doing double-entry bookkeepingand all that kind of head work,alcohol is the wrong drug,and caffeine is the right drug.Caffeine allows youalso to break your tiesto the rhythms of the sun.Before caffeine, basically,people started work when the sun came upand stopped when it went down.With caffeine and with light or gas light,you could have a night shift,you could now have an overnight shift.- [Narrator] It's nothard to see a through-linefrom coffeed-up workers keeping upwith the pace of themachines in the factories,to the rise of office cultureand the establishment of thecoffee break in the 1950s.Caffeine has made us super productive.- There's a veryinteresting body of researchthat suggests that caffeinedoes improve focus and memoryand the ability to learn.So it seems to help us lock in memories.As for focus, it increases our abilityto concentrate on a task,it's incredibly important for modern work.- [Narrator] And of course,caffeine also gives us a burstof energy, but how exactly?Coffee has less than five calories.- Caffeine seemed to bein violation of the lawsof thermodynamics.Essentially, caffeine borrowsenergy from your futureand gives it to you in the present.Caffeine occupies a receptorthat normally is occupiedby a chemical called adenosine,and this is the chemical that,over the course of the day,builds up and makes you feel tiredand prepares the brain for sleep.Caffeine gets in thereand blocks that receptorso you never feel that tiredness.- [Narrator] Right, and that's the catch.Caffeine messes with your sleepbecause four to sixhours after you drink it,half of it is still swirlingaround in your body.- But even if you cut itout earlier in the day,the quality of your sleep may suffer.Not the quantity,necessarily, but the quality.By which, I mean your deepsleep, your slow wave sleep,a kind of sleep that'sdreamless and very deepand is very important tokind of brain hygiene.That's where your brain kindof takes out the garbageevery night and cleans up the desktop.And that kind of sleep suffers.So there's no free lunch, right,in nature and in medicine.- [Narrator] So is the price we payfor poor sleep worth thebenefits that caffeine gives us?- There've been decadesof research into caffeine,and the current researchis that, on balance,it contributes much more toyour health than it takes away.And that it's protectiveagainst many kinds of cancer,cardiovascular disease,Parkinson's, dementia.In the American diet,coffee and tea representthe single biggest sourceof antioxidants,and antioxidants are veryimportant to cellular healthand preventing cancer.And we eat so few plants,so few vegetables andfruit in this country,that we're getting mostof those antioxidantsfrom coffee and tea.It's kind of remarkablethat it has such a clean bill of healthwith that one exception ofwhat it does to your sleepor what it can do to your sleep.- [Narrator] Right.Caffeine ruins our sleepso that the next morningwe reach for more caffeineand the cycle of addiction continues.- You know, we tend to moralize addiction,but is it really a bad thingto be dependent on a plantthat you have easy accessto, you can afford,that isn't ruining your lifeand is giving you some benefit?The way in which individuals are addictedto caffeine is mirrored in our society.We have organized oursociety in such a waywith, like, globe-spanningtrade, working long hoursand changing the climate andchanging the environment.We have created a world inwhich caffeine is indispensable,and therefore the coffee plantand the tea plant are indispensable.And we've created exactlythe world they needin which to thrive.So, I can't think of a moreclever evolutionary strategy.