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Diet Coke Is Basically Brain Food, Study Says

Scientists suspect that caffeine can boost your cognitive performance and improve tactical decision-making. But unfortunately, the sweet spot may not allow for as much cold brew as you’d hoped

One of my favorite pastimes is getting jacked up on three cups of cold brew and running my mouth. Although it’s only a matter of time before I say something I regret, I can always just blame my lack of filter and judgment on the coffee. But maybe not anymore. Because a growing body of research has found that caffeine boosts cognitive functioning and improves decision-making, not the other way around like I thought.

The most recent of these studies compared the performance of 19 soccer players, who refrained from exercise and caffeine consumption for 24 hours prior to the experiment. From there, half of them were given a sports drink with five milligrams of caffeine and half were given the drink without caffeine. After an hour of ingestion, the players engaged in several tactical and athletic tests, which indicated that caffeine improved ball possession and tactical performance when it came to offense. 

The study size was admittedly small, but the results echo past findings about rugby players, tennis players and golfers

Of course, the real question is, does this research translate outside of sports, and can a Diet Coke or cup of coffee improve our everyday decision-making? Study co-author Neil Clarke seems to think so.

“In addition to the well-established ergogenic effect of caffeine on physical performance, caffeine ingestion can also improve cognitive performance, especially in those who are sleep deprived,” Clarke tells me. For instance, a study of Navy SEAL trainees who had been deprived of sleep for three days determined that caffeine improved “visual vigilance, choice reaction time, repeated acquisition [a test of learning and memory] and reduced self-reported fatigue and sleepiness.”

David Culpepper, a physician who wasn’t involved in the study, similarly thinks the implications are promising. “It’s reasonable to think that if there are caffeine-related benefits to tactical thinking during a soccer match, there would be similar effects in other contexts,” Culpepper, who is the clinical director of the telehealth platform LifeMD, explains. For instance, when dealing with a difficult or complex situation at work, “you might be better poised to make the correct decision if your tactical decision-making is boosted by caffeine.” 

That said, past research has also concluded that relatively low doses of caffeine (around 200 milligrams, or about two cups of coffee) are optimal. If you get up into the 300-milligram range, you might reach diminishing returns in terms of cognitive performance, Clarke warns. In other words, you can still blame coffee for your bad decisions — so long as you drink enough of it.

Otherwise, grow up and attribute your poor choices to booze, like an adult.