At every college and professional football stadium every weekend, there is a significant number of people who show up on game day with no means and no intention of making their way inside, finding their seats, and watching the game. They’re the tailgate-only crowd, just there for the experience, the atmosphere. For them, simply being close to the real thing is enough to trigger a high.
Think about that the next time you walk into a coffee shop. Because your brain responds to the smell of coffee in much the same way as those tailgaters on game day: Just the aroma of brewing java can release some of its stimulating benefits, without actually drinking it.
Researchers didn’t begin studying the effects of the smell of coffee on the brain until just a few years ago, and what they found backed up what many of us knew anecdotally well before the issue was examined in a lab. The compounds that make up the scent of coffee beans was enough to release certain proteins in the brains of sleep-deprived laboratory rats, including one known for its antioxidant function. So convincing was data that the researchers wondered if simply smelling coffee - and not drinking it - would be more beneficial to people who are looking to pull an all-nighter.
The study is doubly intriguing because the lab rats don’t have the other mechanism that makes the smell of coffee a stimulant in humans: emotion. (At least, we all really hope rats don’t have feels.) Because olfactory nerves are literally, physically connected to the emotion center in the brain, scents trigger some of the most powerful and potent trips down memory lane. Words and facts, on the other hand, are processed in the parts of the brain responsible for thinking and reasoning. Which is why you don’t usually get jazzed remembering that college lecture, but the smell of coffee may bring back thoughts of your parents’ or grandparents’ house, or some other fond memory of a place and time.
The lab rat study and the link to an emotional memory help to explain why even non-coffee drinkers enjoy the aroma, but not the taste. For coffee hounds, there is the added element of foreshadowing in the brain when it processes the scent. Walking into a coffee shop and taking a deep whiff is more than enough to tell your brain that caffeine is on its way, and that promise itself can act as a cue to begin the process of stimulation incited by drinking coffee.
Of course, we happen to believe you should tease your brain as infrequently as possible. So by all means, don’t just stop at smelling the coffee beans. Still, it’s nice to know some of the reasoning behind that jolt you feel when you walk by the Starbucks kiosk in the mall. And that you’re not alone; there are at least a few kindred tailgaters, not to mention lab rats, who get you.