Worst Science Article Of The Week: Too Much Coffee Will Make You Hallucinate?

By Boonsri Dickinson | January 16, 2009 12:54 pm

seeing-things.jpgHallucinating isn’t all that uncommon: A whopping 10 percent of people claim to hear voices in their lifetime (though it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re crazy). And while caffeine can cause a range of ailments including bone loss and a rise in blood pressure—and is accused of causing plenty more— hallucinations have remained safely off the list.

Until now, that is. Supposedly, a team of psychologists from Durham University in the U.K. have found that big-time coffee drinkers are three times more likely to suffer hallucinations. The researchers wanted to assess how an excess amount of caffeine affects a healthy population, so they asked 200 non-smoking students about their daily caffeine intake, including anything from coffee to tea to energy drinks to chocolate to caffeine pills.

After probing each person for their caffeine habits, the researchers assessed the students to determine their stress levels as well as how likely they were to hallucinate. A small number (the exact number wasn’t released, but it was small) of the subjects claimed they could see things that weren’t there, hear voices when no one was around, or even “sense the dead.”

According to the researchers, the test subjects were more prone to hallucinate if they reported drinking an equivalent of seven cups of instant coffee a day, or three brewed cups—the equivalent of 315 milligrams of caffeine.

Enter the media, which took the “coffee makes you hallucinate!” headline and ran with it. Fox News even made it seem like if you drink coffee, you’ll start seeing dead people. The award for best headline goes to a New Zealand Web site that printed the following: “Coffee may make you see ghosts.”

What nearly all of the coverage failed to mention was this: When people are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released in the body. When stressed people drink caffeine, they get an extra boost of cortisol. So when these stressed folks ingest copious amounts of coffee (or any source of caffeine), it could fuel the pathway towards hallucinating. Or perhaps the subjects who are more likely to hallucinate just so happen to like lots of coffee. Plus there’s the matter of whether or not the students’ tendency to hallucinate was due to alcohol or illegal drugs.

Related Content:

Discoblog: Coffee Shrinks Your Breasts
80beats: Drinking Too Much Coffee Can Give You The Jitters
DISCOVER: Soul Search

Image: flickr/ ian.crowther

  • Gwenny

    As someone pointed out in another forum, did they bother to find out if any of the folks who “hallucinated” had pre-existing mental disorders? Implying that anyone who drinks that much coffee is crazy to begin with. But it’s a valid question. I have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and there’s a suspicion I am also ADD. Since I spend most of my time without medical coverage, I’ve developed strategies that include self medicating with caffeine for the ADD and for depression.

    Alas, I do not hallucinate. That might be exciting.

  • Roy

    This reminded me of a dream theory proposed by, I believe, Crick and Mitchison (1983), where they hypothesized that the purpose of dreaming was to rid ones mind of bad, inaccurate, or “parasitic” memories. If I recall correctly, the theory predicts that, when one is deprived of sleep, the mind isn’t able to appropriately sort out or evacuate these parasitic memories, and could become more prone to hallucinations (or the manifestations of these bad memories) during waking hours. The theory was tested by depriving a group of subjects of REM sleep while allowing a control group to sleep thoroughly. They then treated each of the groups to small amounts of a hallucinogenic drug and, indeed, the sleep deprived were more likely to suffer from hallucinations at lower doses.

    Thus, this story might fit nicely under their theory, whereas coffee drinkers and those who generally use too much caffeine might be expected to be more likely to suffer from hallucinogenic episodes due to a lack of efficient sleep induced by the drug caffeine.

  • Pingback: Bad Science » Drink coffee, see dead people. | Espresso News and Reviews - TheShot.coffeeratings.com()

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