I’ve been up since 4am .. (don’t ask, no really don’t ask), and so like many in similar circumstances, I’ve had a cup of coffee which was then followed by breakfast that more or less consisted of another cup of coffee.  Then later another and again another. Right now I’m about to have extra-strong brew. So, while I might indeed be tired, I’m also buzzing, and will no doubt crash later.

What is news, for me anyway, is that apparently, if I look out the window, I just might catch a glimpse of a few pink unicorns or a pig flying past. Why? well according to the news out from a study in Australia, coffee is apparently a hallucinogen and so when taking a coffee break, I am also setting myself up to take a break from reality … or at least so screams some headlines today. For example, the UK’s Daily Mail claims, “Drinking Coffee can make you hear voices“. Since its the Daily Mail, then it just must be true, right? … er perhaps not, so lets take a closer look, brush away the hype and see what this is actually all about.

The Sydney Morning Herald, is a bit more realistic, it claims, “Too Much Caffine May bring you more Bing than Zing” then goes into some details about the study, and is more accurate regarding the actual findings.

Our first reality check here is that this news is not actually new at all. Here is a News item from Durham University all about this – that’s a 2 year old article, so what we actually have is a study that simply backs up the results from other similar  earlier studies.

OK then, lets take a closer look at the actual study, the latest one. You can find it here; it has been published in “Personality and Individual Differences” and was submitted to them for publication on 25 May 2010 (one year ago) – yep, that also is not new. All that has actually happened is that the study popped up on some tabloid radar,  and from there it has gone viral. An extract from the abstract tells all  (bold text is mine) :

In this study, 92 non-clinical participants were assigned to either a high or a low stress condition and a high or a low caffeine condition on the basis of self-report. After they had been primed, the participants were asked to listen to white noise and to report each time they heard the song “White Christmas” during the white noise. The song was never played. The results indicated that the interaction of stress and caffeine had a significant effect on the reported frequency of hearing “White Christmas”. The results demonstrated that high caffeine levels in association with high levels of stressful life events interacted to produce higher levels of “hallucination” in non-clinical participants, indicating that further caution needs to be exercised with the use of this overtly “safe” drug.

In essence, the word “hallucinogen” in the headlines being associated with normal coffee consumption is perhaps a tad excessive. Basically, pump up a bunch of folks with high caffeine doses, then suggest something to them, and they just might begin to hear what you are suggesting is there when its not, but only if they are also under stress as well.

As for me, I think I’ll just go get another coffee then sit back, relax, and count the pink unicorns zooming past the window outside. So far my tally has been zero, but you never know.

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