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Boston Globe Online / Ideas
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Coffee achievers

By Jennifer Schuessler, 10/27/2002

WHEN A YOUNG Englishman named William Harvey returned home from medical school in Italy in 1599, he brought with him a stash of a miraculous new stimulant: the humble, exalted coffee bean. As legend has it, Harvey's discovery of human blood pressure was suggested to him by the blood pounding in his ears during a particularly intense java bender. On his deathbed, he was even said to have held a coffee bean between his fingers and declared, ''This little bean is the source of all happiness and wit!''

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In their 2001 book ''The World of Caffeine,'' science writers Bennett Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer traced the strange career of the world's most popular recreational drug. Now, with their self-help follow-up ''The Coffee Advantage'' (The Free Press), Weinberg and Bealer offer average morning self-medicators hope that they too can join the ranks of what an old ad campaign once dubbed ''the coffee achievers.'' Loaded with useful sidebars and diagnostic quizzes, this user-friendly manual offers advice on the optimal ''dosing'' that will make us smarter, calmer, safer, thinner, healthier, sexier, less bored and ''hostile.'' The trick is for each user to ride the Yerkes-Dodson Biophasic Curve, which tracks that mystical point beyond which caffeine's benefits begin to reverse themselves. Though too much caffeine can lead to jitteriness and insomnia, the authors dismiss the notion that caffeine is harmful - or even truly addictive. The only real risk is falling into ''caffeinism,'' as psychiatrists have labeled compulsive and self-defeating overconsumption of the stuff.

Honore de Balzac, a ''hardened caffeine user'' who was eventually reduced to scarfing beans whole, may have suffered from this; he died at an unripe 51, after a life of manic overproduction. But a regular jolt of joe may make us more creative. Beethoven, Voltaire, and Samuel Johnson did some of their best work while deep in their cups. (Goethe, though a friend of the German doctor who pioneered the scientific study of caffeine, was a hot chocolate man.)

Studies have shown that geniuses and Sunday painters alike see colors more intensely and show improved ''visuospatial reasoning'' on caffeine. ''Who knows what Leonardo might have done if he'd known about caffeine!'' Weinberg and Bealer rhapsodize. ''Is it possible that the Impressionists' love of subtle pastels originated from their many hours in the Paris cafes?''

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This story ran on page D3 of the Boston Globe on 10/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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