I’ll be the first to admit the irony of this newsletter’s title considering the name of this newsletter, but hear me out.
After reading Michael Pollan’s audible “Caffeine,” I’ve reflected deeply on my relationship with coffee and the ways it promotes, inhibits, or masks my reality. So, I want to talk about some of the benefits and drawbacks of coffee consumption laid out by Pollan in addition to some personal anecdotes about my relationship with coffee as both a leisure beverage and productivity enhancer.
In the audiobook, Pollan takes a historical dive into the connections between the evolution of caffeine and the evolution of thought. From the dawn of coffee shops popping up in the Ottoman Empire in 1570, coffee shops became “penny universities” for both intellectuals and common-men to collide and share ideas. Enlightenment thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Rousseau, and Voltaire frequented these shops in the 17th century, with Voltaire being known to drink up to 72 cups of coffee per day.
Pollan attributes the attraction of caffeine to intellectual circles to coffee’s ability to put us into what psychologists call “spotlight consciousness.” In spotlight consciousness, our state of mind is logical, focused, and one-pointed. We are able to follow lines of reasoning and streams of thought with a natural flow without attentional breaks.
Hence, caffeine is attributed as one of the potential, numerous causes of the Enlightenment. Before caffeine, alcohol was the beverage of choice during the Middle Ages which is known to produce the oppose of spotlight consciousness: lantern consciousness. In lantern consciousness, our creativity can cover a plethora of topics and jump from one idea to another with ease. Like a lantern, all our areas of knowledge are lit up, but none of them are illuminated brightly enough to get any real deep work done. Thus, society’s technological advancements came to a screeching halt as people drank beer in the streets and in pubs like water.
The value of spotlight consciousness, shown through historical evidence, is worth discussing. After learning about the power of caffeine to enhance deep work, I’ve begun aligning my deep work session with my morning coffee. When I wake up, I’ll complete a few morning chores and hold out on drinking coffee until it’s time to sit down and start working. Before, precious spotlight consciousness was wasted organizing my room or getting prepped for the day, and I had no cue or incentive to start working.
Even though my morning cup has solved some issues, it’s created new ones too. Similar to many, I’ve grown a slight dependency on caffeine. As French philosopher Michel Foucault says, caffeine makes us “disciples of the body.” That is, caffeine ties us to the machine that made it so popular: capitalism and mass consumerism.
So, how does caffeine make us disciples of capitalism? As outlined by Pollan, caffeine has a half-life of 12 hours. Meaning if you drink 80mg of caffeine at 9AM, the standard dose in one cup, you’ll have 40mg of caffeine running through your system at 9PM when you’re winding down for bed. This creates a cycle of poor sleep, followed by the need to suppress our fatigue with more caffeine the next day, the cycle repeats, and we have become cogs of the caffeine machine Foucault warns us of.
To reduce this problem, I’ve set a rule for myself to not drink caffeine past noon. Although I fall victim to the occasional brunch cup of coffee on vacation or the weekends, following this rule during the weekdays works wonders for my sleep quality so I would definitely recommend thinking out some rule for your schedule as to when you cut out caffeine from your diet during the day.
Additionally, at the time when I listened through Pollan’s audible, I was in a place where I did a lot of Jesuit examens to gain a deeper self-understanding. One thing I realized is although I don’t believe my productivity hinges on coffee, I worry about developing what the Jesuits would call a “disordered attachment.”
In Jesuit thought, a disordered attachment is any worldly attachment that takes away our free time and energy from expressing love or joy for the things we love to do. An easy example: smoking. If I love the work that I’m doing, I’m in the middle of a deep work session, and my craft is producing something that will make a positive impact on the world, I am living in freedom according to the Jesuits. But, let’s say my deep work is abruptly interrupted by the need for a smoke. I can’t smoke in the office building and I can’t focus without a buzz, so I step outside and break my deep work. This need for a cigarette break is a disordered attachment because it takes you away from the thing you truly love and lessens the extent to which you can bring love, joy, and positive energy into the world.
For me and for many, caffeine can be a disordered attachment. Not because I am addicted to caffeine, and, to be clear, disordered attachments do not only include addictions. Binging Netflix or reading an unhealthy amount of Nietzsche can be disordered attachments. In my case, caffeine takes away from the freedom my labor and hard work are supposed to bring me. There will be days when I fool myself into thinking that a third or fourth cup will propel me into a hyper-productive state, but instead, my chest tightens and I morph into a ball of anxiety and stress from a small caffeine overdose. Typically when it is too late and I am too anxious to work efficiently, I step back and ask myself: Could I have gotten to a place where I am working hard and doing the things I love without that extra cup?
All in all, Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine” was an eye-opening listen, and I relay this information to you not to scare you away from coffee, but to consider deeply the role it plays in your life. And if you’re not a coffee or caffeine consumer, what disordered attachments keep you from living out freedom in your life? Another question for reflection: Do philosophers need caffeine to think or is this a glorified disordered attachment? Pollan and other experts claim coffee shops birthed rationalism, but philosophers such as Nietzsche, one of the most creative and intricate writers in the field, criticized the beverage stating, “coffee spreads darkness.”
Thus, the question is: will coffee be your disordered attachment and infect you with its consumeristic dependency, or will you use coffee to channel your spotlight consciousness and channel that energy towards living in freedom?
Have an awesome week!
❤️ My Weekly Favorites
- 📽️ Stop “Working” So Hard.
- Captain Sinbad critiques both hustle culture and anti-hustle culture. This is the best Gary Vee diss since Demetri covered the topic with eloquence.
- 🎙️ Cal Newport on Knowledge Work and Effective Communication — Daily Stoic
- An insightful conversation between Cal and Ryan talking about entrepreneurial knowledge work and the death of email.
✍️ Quote of the Week
“A fire turns everything into heat and brightness” - Marcus Aurelius
📽️ This Week's Videos
🎙️ This Week's Podcasts
- 85 - Focusing on Enjoying the Journey
- A Message to Your Younger Self - Productive Brew 15
- Disordered Attachment to Caffeine - Productive Brew 16