November 22, 2010

Coffee, Addiction, and Bad Rapping

I am more patient than I feel at the moment. I know this, because I've held my tongue before, when doing the opposite would likely have been forgiven. And yet it's hard, flanked on all sides by would-be rappers, whispering their emphatic proclamations of surely imagine exploits in a raspy staccato, not to shout something, anything, which might lead to their shutting up.

But perhaps my nervous aggression owes to something other than the suburban gangsta spouting off to my right. I haven't had my coffee yet today, after all. A quick look at my watch reveals the time to be 8:43. By now, I should have consumed one cup, perhaps two. Coffee deprivation for one so addicted, we're told, leads to irritability. I've joked about this myself before; but I've only ever done exactly that - joked. There exists, however, something of a broad consensus that coffee is addicting, and that a side effect of abstaining, for the addicted, is a prickly aloofness.

This is the part where I would love to trot out several scientific papers, touting something like a consensus. Unfortunately, that can't be done. That's because, despite the amount of research done, there is very little agreement on A) What something has to do, in order to qualify as "addicting", and B) Whether coffee fits whatever that criteria is supposed to be.

Despite the differences, the argument is generally framed around caffeine. Caffeine is a drug, of course. And it's one that has effects on the brain that many people enjoy. It's also true that people can experience withdrawal symptoms from it. And so, that being established, it looks like we have something of an open and shut case. Caffeine is an addictive drug, found in coffee; therefore, coffee is addictive.

But let's slow down. There are many things, almost innumerable things, that trigger similar neurological responses. Eating a piece of dark chocolate, seeing the face of an old friend, petting a dog, sprinting - all of these things stimulate certain "pleasure" receptors in the brain. And all of them, once experienced habitually, tend to be sought out. In their absence, frequent consumers feel pangs, physical and/or emotional. And so it can be said, rather definitively, that these things are habit forming. Coffee, almost without argument, falls in to that category, at least. But addiction is something else altogether.

What exactly it is, is up for debate slightly, but generally agreed upon as being a phenomenon caused by psychoactive drugs which temporarily alter the chemical makeup of the brain. If we accept that, then coffee, by virtue of its caffeine content, is addictive. It is worth noting here, that despite that fact, The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders does not list caffeine as a drug of dependence. That is, in the most strict medical sense, one cannot be addicted to caffeine.

But there are the anecdotes to consider. And I legitimately do not want to diminish the real experiences of real people, who may claim to have been beholden to coffee as a junky is to heroine. But one can find, as well, people claiming to have been addicted to carbohydrates, to exercise, to a television show or just about anything else. All of those things, while not psychoactive drugs, certainly do cause temporary chemical changes to the brain, resulting in sensations which one could be driven to seek, and miss in their absence.

I've put on a pair of clunky, ear wrapping headphones now, in a failed attempt to shield myself from the auditory onslaught with which I am still being bombarded. So long as I stay, and as long as they do the same, there will be no reprieve. There won't be any coffee, either. Neither of these things will do, of course, and so I must be off - to save my ears, and my sanity.  

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