Does excessive caffeine cause hallucinations, or the other way around? No.

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

No one like Dunkin Donuts coffee more than me. So when there’s a study that suggests I may be psychotic, I take notice.

A study: 92 normals listened to white noise through headphones.  They were asked to count how many times they heard the song, “White Christmas” playing in the noise.  Most people heard it 1-3 times.  In fact, it  was never played.

The study then groups the subjects into high/low caffeine and experiencing high/low stress– all by self report; so this isn’t a study of the effect of caffeine itself, but of the type of person who drinks caffeine or is stressed.

The result was this:

caffeine hallucination

The correct way to interpret these results is to say that X predicted Y, e.g.

stress alone did not predict tendency to hallucinate

the combination of stress and caffeine predicted tendency to hallucinate

Most people attempt to critique a study by looking at the Results section, or at statistical significance, but the big money is usually in the Introduction or methodology.

The study authors want to be making a more general point about psychosis and even schizophrenia; and about the toxicity of excessive caffeine. All valuable discussion topics, but this study has nothing to do with those.

The subjects were also measured for overall hallucination proneness (formal scales) and there was no correlation between those scores and actually hallucinating the song in this study.

Consider that while almost everyone heard the song at least once, no one reported hearing a different song. The only song anyone reported hearing was White Christmas.

So the study is more likely measuring suggestibility.

Research efforts should also focus on determining the mechanisms of action by which caffeine and stress promote hallucinatory experiences.

I agree, but that has nothing to do with this study. It’s about the type of person likely to respond to the words of a researcher, which is also worth looking into if you have the grant money. Does high stress and caffeine predict psychosis? No. At best, this study suggests a quick way to screen potential dates, volunteers from the audience, and rubes.

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What is the best and healthiest coffee to drink? Not a joke: the answer might be Dunkin Donuts.

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8 Responses to Does excessive caffeine cause hallucinations, or the other way around? No.

  1. BHE says:

    Yeah, this is ridiculous on a completely fundamental level. “OK, listen to this and count how many times you hear ‘White Christmas'” or someone whispering that you are fat.”

    How many test subjects then went on a diet?

  2. cfox says:

    I had my first experience of white-noise induced audio hallucinations by playing music (the South Park ‘Uncle Fucker’ song) loudly in a machine room with loud background fan noise. The song ended, and then it kept playing, more faintly, and I walked around the room checking for another server that might have a speaker connected to it, before figuring out that it was a perceptual illusion.

    It’s actually a really easy thing to trigger; you need some form of priming (the suggestion in the above experiment) but I don’t think it actually needs to be a suggestion. It will happen quite often for me with just music in the right environment, and I think of it as a familiar nuisance.

    • ssexton says:

      I have two fans going in my bedroom and I hear music when they’re both on. It’s the white noise. I don’t think caffeine has that much to do with it. I have also heard heavy metal music when running bath water. It’s somewhat entertaining.

  3. cliche says:

    In your article on Ritalin, you mention that Caffeine stimulates your whole brain.
    How does nicotine work as a stimulant?
    I know it was Freud’s stimulant of choice, besides all the cocaine.

  4. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    And easy way to tell the independent effect of caffeine would have been to make this double blind placebo controlled. One group thinks they are drinking caffeine, and is drinking caffeine; another group thinks they are drinking caffeine, and actually is only drinking bitter water. Both groups think they are taking caffeine; if the group who is actually getting caffeine has more perceptional illusions it stands to reason that caffeine may play a role in perceptions which are false.

    In fact I would EXPECT stimulants or any kind of dopaminergic agent to make hallucionations in psychosis as well as normal cognative illusions to be more frequent.

    Speaking personally… yea, I have a probable bipolar disorder. When I’m high on the crazy trip I notice perceptual illusions and persecutory thoughts are much more common. Not psychosis (I’m sane) but I get thoughts such as “those people are going to follow me” or “that helicopter is watching me” or “there is going to be a natural disaster which will strike us”.
    I know it’s not true but the thoughts compulsively enter my head…

    I will also have TONS of sensory misperceptions while high. My senses are augmented 10xs. Sounds impress powerfully, smells are super strong, my vision can be as sharp as an eagle and the smallest details on tree bark are hypermagnified with intense precision. One thing I do frequently is interpret my environment in a strange way, and I Have to “consciously” figure out what I am seeing.
    OMG A LADDER AND A BUNCH OF BOOKS AND STAIRS AND THIS AND THAT when in reality nothing at all is there. If I were calm and normal, my mind would not have automatically “seen” all that stuff.
    OMG THERES A MONSTER IN THE CORNER IT HAS CLAWS IT’S GREEN AND PURPLE AND THERE ARE TATTERED CLOTHINGS ON IT…owait monsters arent real, my mind is acting weird.
    THERES AN ALIEN DOWN THE ROAD no way aliens arent real.

    It seems insignificant to have fleeing “crazy thoughts’ like this, however imagine doing it OVER AND OVER AGAIN to the point where you feel like you need to “focus on reality” and stop y9our mind from jumping into fantasy land seeing/thinking shit that isn’t real.

    When I”m “high” I get this way (high on manic shit)

    I also get this way if I plow myself with caffeine, stress, and low sleep (often redundant with the previous condition).

    Right now I am calm, normal, have been for the past few weeks… I have none of these problems at all. I am quite tired, sleeping like a pro, eating a lot of food, and NEVER have misperceptions or crazy thoughts or anything of the sort. I am drinking lots of caffeine but my mind is in order and I’m chugging along. If I were wired and nuts and not sleeping well and not eating due to being wired then yea, I probably would having those problems. Caffeine definitely makes it worse.

    I mean, if EVERY SINGLE OTHER stimulant is known to exacerbate psychosis if not cause it , what makes you think that caffeine is any different? Especially if the person is vulnerable to insanity (e.g. bipolar or schizo) I would totally expect caffeine to make crazy shit worse.

  5. thecabinet says:

    There’s an even more fundamental problem with this study, which is that maybe they really did hear the song. The Science Alert writeup doesn’t make it clear, but I can recognize songs I’m really familiar with in just a few notes. Considering the experimental setup (“note when you hear White Christmas *through all this white noise*”) it’s entirely possible that the subjects actually heard something that sounded like a few notes plus noise.

  6. BluegrassJack says:

    Yes, the methodology is all-important in a scientific study. Seems like this study was done in Australia. The identity of the scientific journal in which it appears is not given in the link. So, we really can’t tell what the methodology was.

    Caffeine is a bitter white powder that is colorless dissolved in water; coffee is usually brown/black. The placebo must look like and taste like the test drug (i.e., coffee, I guess) for any results to start making sense. Caffeine in coffee is hidden by all the other gunk in coffee. Did those Australians pick a sensible placebo? Dunno.

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