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'Needing' Your Coffee Hit Is All In Your Head, Study Finds

"I can't start the day without a coffee," is a commonly expressed sentiment, but a new study is challenging this mantra.

It's no secret that Aussies love coffee.

Our coffee industry Australia is worth close to $10 billion, with industry revenue growing at a rate of 2.2 percent annually over the past five years.

According to data from McCrindle more than one in four Australians say they cannot survive a day without it. Some 28 percent of us have three or more cups a day.

So here's some news for the growing number of members joining the coffee cult.

New international research by Monash University and the University of Toronto found that individuals don't necessarily need to drink coffee to get the same kick.

Dr Eugene Chan and Associate Professor Sam Maglio explored the link between coffee and arousal to see if the brain’s exposure to stimuli could deliver the same benefits as a caffeine buzz.

“As long as individuals see a connection between coffee and arousal, whatever its origin may be, mere exposure to coffee-related cues might trigger arousal in and of themselves without ingesting any form of caffeine,” Chan said.

READ MORE: The Grinch Enjoys A Very Australian Coffee, Says Benedict Cumberbatch

This so-called 'coffee placebo effect' heightens arousal, ambition and focus in regular drinkers without them actually drinking a coffee.

The findings suggest that coffee enthusiasts simply need to respond to the cues that make them think of coffee. This includes smelling it and looking at it.

Image: Getty Images

“Smelling coffee gives rise to the beverage’s psychoactive, arousing effects. This is because the brains of habitual coffee consumers are conditioned to respond to coffee in certain ways, as per the prominent Pavlov’s dog theory," Chan said.

In 1890, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that any object or event which the dogs he was studying learned to associate with food -- such as a lab assistant's footsteps -- triggered the same response as actually eating the food.

READ MORE: Switzerland Has Been Stockpiling Coffee Since WWI, And Now Wants To Stop

Chan and Maglio exposed 871 participants from Western and Eastern cultures to coffee and tea-related cues.

“So walking past your favourite café, smelling the odours of coffee grounds, or even witnessing coffee-related cues in the form of advertising," Chan said.

There were four separate experiments in total that encouraged the cohort to think of the hot beverage without actually ingesting it.

"[It] can trigger the chemical receptors in our body enough for us to obtain the same arousal sensations without consumption.”

In one exercise, study participants had to come up with advertising slogans for coffee or tea. In another, they had to mock-up news stories about the health benefits of drinking coffee or tea.

Both times, researchers measured their "arousal levels", with results showing that simply priming people to exposed coffee cues showed increases in their energy levels, heart rate, and made them think narrowly.

Researchers also learnt that cognitive-altering effects of coffee were more prevalent in participants from Western countries, where coffee is more popular and frequently associated with focus and ambition.

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The authors said their findings have "intriguing implications".

“It relies not on physiology but rather psychological associations to change our cognitive patterns,” Chan said.

Image: Getty Images

They suggested the study could even help to explain how drinking decaffeinated coffee can produce faster reaction times on tasks.

The research adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that what we eat or drink can do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure.

Sometimes simply being exposed to it or reminded of it impacts how we think.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au