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Caffeine is a very common drug in Western society, but it is much more powerful than many people realise. All
psychoactive drugs affect the nervous system in some way, but they have different effects by influencing different parts of
The drug caffeine, which we take in coffee or cola drinks, acts on the autonomic nervous system to produce a state of
arousal ( a term we use to describe a physical state when several physiological systems have been aroused at the same
time) in the body. It also acts on the reticular formation of the brain, as a stimulant. So, it isn’t surprising that it helps
people to wake up in the morning! It also isn’t surprising that, while a little caffeine may pep you up, too much of it can
make you irritable and edgy.
Caffeine is also physically addictive, and many people who give it up find that they experience unpleasant withdrawal
symptoms, including blinding headaches, nausea and stomach upsets. This addiction comes as a surprise to many people,
because caffeine is so readily accepted in society that people assume that it must be innocuous. However, being addictive
doesn’t necessarily mean that it is damaging – most people live perfectly healthy lives with a daily dose of caffeine, with no
problem that we can detect from that. The main problem with caffeine is that, when people take it in large amount, it can
interfere with decision-making, because people are edgy and overreact to information and events; and it also can add
seriously to day to day stress. So reducing your caffeine intake is quite a constructive thing to do if you are feeling under
Alcohol works in almost entirely the opposite way – as a sedative which calms down the autonomic nervous system and
relaxes the muscles. In small doses, the influence of alcohol can often seem quite stimulating, because it relaxes the
everyday tension that most of us feel and allows us to feel more at ease with other people. So we find it easy to talk and to
join in with what is going on. It isn’t really a stimulant drug, in a physical sense, but in small doses it can be a sociable drug.
Heavy drinking is a serious social problem, though, partly because of the way that alcohol use reduces social inhibitions,
with the result that people can become extremely aggressive and even violent. Most cases of domestic abuse are alcohol
Other problems with alcohol come from its amnesiac effects. Alcohol can severely interfere with memory, which is why
people often drink too much when they have problems. Once in a while that doesn’t matter, but it is made worse by not
eating, because the toxins from the alcohol don’t burn off the same way. So people who drink heavily over a period of
years and don’t eat properly can lose their ability to store new memories altogether, which is much more serious.
The other psychological effect which alcohol has is to impair our ability to make a balanced judgement. People who have
been drinking – even quite small amounts – make far more mistakes on physical co-ordination tasks than people who
haven’t. But perhaps because they feel relaxed by the drug, they usually shrug off these mistakes, or don’t even notice
them at all.
This discussion of how drugs work shows us how closely consciousness and the chemicals in the brain are linked. We can
change the chemical balance of the brain, and we do, each time we have an alcoholic drink or a cup of coffee – or even a
glass of milk, which contains mild, naturally occurring morphine-like substances (which is why it helps us to feel calmer).
Both natural and synthetic drugs can change our moods, our state of awareness, and our perceptions of reality.
Excerpt taken from ‘Understand Psychology’Dr Nicky Hayes 2010