When exam time rolls around it’s not unusual to see weary eyed students hunched over heavy textbooks sipping cups of lukewarm java. Although their main objective may be to stay awake until test time, can the benefits of coffee include better performance when exam time finally rolls around?
Interestingly, the benefits of coffee drinking for enhancing memory have already been demonstrated. In a study published by the American Psychological Society, drinking coffee was shown to boost memory in older adults, although decaffeinated coffee didn’t appear to have the same effect. It appeared to be the caffeine which enhanced memory rather than some other component found in the coffee. The researchers emphasized that other stimulants may have a similar effect to caffeine when it comes to optimizing memory.
Another study published in 2005 further confirmed the memory boosting benefits of coffee drinking. Researchers were able to show that caffeine enhances short-term memory by interacting with higher centers in the brain. The type of memory caffeine seemed to boost in these studies was “working memory” or the type of memory used to retain information for short time intervals, such as when cramming for an exam.
Despite this, not all studies have shown a memory enhancing effect. Some studies carried out on mice and rats have shown that caffeine may actually impair short-term and long-term memory.
Caffeine has also been shown to increase activity in the portion of the brain that controls attention which may allow for sharper focus on a task, in this case studying for a big exam. It appears that another benefit of coffee drinking may be allowing distractions to be tuned out so that new information can be absorbed more easily.
Although the benefits of coffee drinking seem to include increased attention and, possibly, enhancement of short-term memory, this may be a dose dependent effect. If high doses of caffeine are consumed particularly in a caffeine sensitive individual, negative effects such as jitteriness and anxiety may make it more difficult to retain information.
Some studies suggest a positive benefit of coffee drinking on memory and attention which may be helpful in preparing for an exam. Whether or not this is beneficial may depend upon the individual and how he or she responds to caffeine. It may also depend on how much caffeine is consumed.
The bottom line? When preparing for an exam, it’s probably best to study far enough ahead of time so you don’t have to depend on the benefits of coffee to ace the class.