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Does coffee make you smarter?

Even before it hits your lips, the dark, smoky aroma of your Sumatran beans brightens your mood, rouses your senses. Your insides smile. You start to feel alive again.

Monday morning. Mid-winter. You have your first exam today. You’ve been studying all night. Your eyelids are paper weights. Your feet are cinder blocks. Your head is filled with wet towels. You momentarily panic. Can you still remember anything you read last night?

You go to the kitchen to make breakfast. Your stomach says toast, but the mould on the bread says otherwise. The cupboards are empty minute noodles. You can’t stomach more noodles. Your only friend is coffee – warm, wonderful coffee. Even before it hits your lips, the dark, smoky aroma of your Sumatran beans brightens your mood, rouses your senses. Your insides smile. You start to feel alive again. By the end of the cup, you’re awake, alert, and happy.

You decide coffee is magic, grown by wizards. You let your day begin.

The legend of coffee

Coffee is the stuff of legends. Literally. Popular folklore gives credit to Kaldi, a legendary Ethiopian goat herder, for first discovering the coffee plant. Kaldi noticed that when his flock of goats nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush they became frisky and danced around the fields.

Always the experimentalist, Kaldi chewed on the fruit himself and found that he felt exhilarated; he was experiencing the world’s first coffee buzz. Feeling super alert, he promptly took the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery, but the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire. An enticing coffee aroma ensued and the roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world's first cup of coffee.

We don’t know if any of that is true, but if it is, Kaldi, we salute you.

Coffee makes brain work good

Coffee lovers have argued the virtues of coffee for eons: it’s full of antioxidants (my free radicals are doomed), it’s chocked with vitamins, it helps me burn fat, it can prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’s good for my liver, it gives me x-ray vision! (Okay, we made that last one up). But few of the claims are supported by science.

Until now.

In late 2014 researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found that caffeine has a positive effect on our short-term memory. The scientists believe that caffeine may be acting on the hippocampus, a part of the brain that acts as a relay switching centre for short and long term memories. During clinical trials, 100 volunteers were given either a 200 milligram caffeine pill or a dummy placebo tablet five minutes after studying a series of images. The researchers found that the memory of those who took the caffeine pill had been significantly enhanced. They concluded that they’d found clear evidence of caffeine’s memory-boosting ability, and demonstrated that that ability lasts for at least 24 hours.

So what does that mean for the coffee-drinking student? A double-shot long macchiato after pulling an all-nighter studying for an exam just might help jog those elusive memories, and make you that little bit smarter. For 24 hours, at least.

Hey, that’s better than nothing.