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The Science of It All: More than caffeine

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Jennifer Xu, Statement Columnist
Published February 4, 2013

My friend claims she can’t get any work done unless she’s sitting in a coffee shop with a latte in one hand and a copy of Borges in another. Aspects I write off as distractions — the whirr of the espresso machine, the attractive barista at the counter, the gaggle of girls dissecting last night’s exploits at Skeeps — seem to fuel her productivity level rather than stymie it.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland

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She’s clearly not alone. J.K. Rowling wrote the first draft of “Harry Potter” on a café napkin. In the acknowledgements of his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell thanked the staff of the Savoy restaurant in Soho. And while there’s no definitive answer as to why coffee shops have become such hubs of productivity, a couple hypotheses have been raised.

They impose restrictions on time. You know how it goes: you open up the entire day to finish that 15-page paper. Eight hours and hundreds of tossed Angry Birds later, you find you’ve only drafted an outline and a hastily constructed thesis statement.

The philosophy goes that when we have wide expanses of time with one task to do, we tend to waste them. But when hours are restricted, we just suck it up and do our work. This way of thinking has been incorporated into a 1980’s time-management method called the Pomodoro technique. Meant to maximize efficiency and preserve focus for long periods of time, the Pomodoro technique is pretty simple: You work for 25 minutes and take a break for five minutes, cycling through four of these iterations before taking a longer, 20-minute break.

The coffee shop can act as a sort of real-life Pomodoro timer. And whether it’s because our batteries are dying or the counter is closing in 45 minutes, restricting the time we’re allowed to work can significantly increase our efficiency.

Other people scare you into being productive. Coffee shops are notoriously open places. You can see exactly what everyone else is doing from any part of the room. We gaze enviously at the lines of text that cover our neighbor’s laptop screen, knowing the same neighbor is watching us, being demonstrably less productive as we Gchat a friend about whether to get Thai food tomorrow. By the power of peer pressure, the stranger’s gaze drives us to shut off our WiFi and get to work.

This is a classic example of Asch conformity. In a series of experiments, Solomon Asch demonstrated that he could get people to select the wrong answer to very simple questions if they thought their neighbors were selecting the same thing. Asch conformity bolstered the idea that neighbors could mutually intimidate each other into doing something they wouldn’t ordinarily do alone. It can be used for evil — such as bystander apathy — but it can also be used for good, like finally finishing up those PoliSci readings.

They provide the optimal level of noise. Close your eyes and visualize a bustling coffee shop. What do you hear? People chattering? Synthy background music? The comforting grind of coffee beans?

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, we’re at our most creative when subjected to a moderate level of ambient noise. In a series of experiments, subjects were exposed a range of sounds from 50 to 85 decibels and then asked to engage in a creative task, such as brainstorming new ideas for a new type of mattress. Those exposed to mid-level ambient noise — at around 70 dB — were found to come up with more creative solutions.

The researchers hypothesize that the noise induces kinks into the brain’s processing mechanism, which impairs our ability to fixate on one task. Interestingly, it’s this impairment that allows us to think more creatively. A noisy environment can disrupt our normal way of thinking and activate the sort of abstract cognition that comprises real creativity. Coffee shops, according to the researchers, are something like the Goldilocks of ambient noise — not too loud, not too silent, but just right.