Go ahead. Have another cup of coffee. Pay no attention to the sounds of "White… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)
You can’t believe everything you hear, especially if you’re polishing off the third refill of your venti coffee. Australian researchers at La Trobe University have just published a study suggesting that people on a serious caffeine buzz are prone to hear things that aren’t there. The study might raise new concerns about the safety of caffeine. But for the average person who’s weary of conflicting reports about coffee and health, the new findings may not amount to much more than background noise.
Evidently deciding that an actual Starbucks would be too loud for science, the researchers brought volunteers to a lab. The subjects — some highly caffeinated, some not — put on headphones that pumped out white noise. They were told that Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" would be playing in the background, which was actually just a white lie. Even though Bing wasn’t anywhere around, some of the caffeine-addled listeners said they could hear the song. (In their defense, it should be pointed out that the differences between white noise and "White Christmas" are pretty subtle.) The researchers concluded that five regular cups of coffee could be enough to increase the risk of auditory hallucinations.
The study has some flaws — it was small, it was published in an obscure journal, and it wasn’t well-controlled — but the main finding seems plausible enough. Caffeine certainly can heighten the senses, and there’s growing evidence that it can cause mild hallucinations. A 2009 survey found that people who drank the equivalent of three or more cups of brewed coffee a day were three times more likely than other people to report hearing and seeing things that aren’t there.
In 1992, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a report of “olfactory hallucination after intravenous caffeine.” The full report doesn’t seem to be available online, but the title alone should be enough to make you think twice about hooking yourself up to a latte IV.
In a university press release, the lead researcher of the Australian study likened the hallucinations to a “psychosis-like symptom.” He also said that “the health risks of excessive caffeine risks must be addressed.”
Caffeine is one of those compounds that keeps medical writers in business. It seems as if there’s a new study to cover every week. In this case, the hand-wringing feels misplaced. There’s a big jump between imagining the strains of "White Christmas" and suffering from full-blown psychosis. So far, there’s no evidence that caffeine alone could cause severe hallucinations. Bing Crosby whispering in your ear is one thing. But if you can see him sitting next to you, a coffee habit isn’t your biggest problem.