June 08, 2006

Neuropharmacological Foundations of the Public Sphere

The importance of coffee-houses in the Enlightenment, and the rise of the public sphere, is a historical common-place. But it's also puzzling: historians can say a lot of sensible things about how, as a social setting, the cafe was conducive to the give and take of (more or less) rational argument, and (relative) indifference to social standing in favor of persuasion. But I've never heard a good story for why coffee houses had to be run that way, nor that (say) taverns weren't, or couldn't have been, run that way. So, while not denigrating the social factor, it doesn't seem to explain why this connection took hold. Now, at last, scientific proof that Enlightenment had a sound material basis (via Mind Hacks):

Pearl Y. Martin, Jenny Laing, Robin Martin, and Melanie Mitchell, "Caffeine, Cognition, and Persuasion: Evidence for Caffeine Increasing the Systematic Processing of Persuasive Messages", Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35 (2005): 160--182 [full-text PDF free via that link]
Abstract: Caffeine is known to increase arousal, attention, and information processing—all factors implicated in facilitating persuasion. In a standard attitude-change paradigm, participants consumed an orange-juice drink that either contained caffeine (3.5 mg/kg body weight) or did not (placebo) prior to reading a counterattitudinal communication (anti-voluntary euthanasia). Participants then completed a thought-listing task and a number of attitude scales. The first experiment showed that those who consumed caffeine showed greater agreement with the communication (direct attitude: voluntary euthanasia) and on an issue related to, but not contained in, the communication (indirect attitude: abortion). The order in which direct and indirect attitudes were measured did not affect the results. A second experiment manipulated the quality of the arguments in the message (strong vs. weak) to determine whether systematic processing had occurred. There was evidence that systematic processing occurred in both drink conditions, but was greater for those who had consumed caffeine. In both experiments, the amount of message-congruent thinking mediated persuasion. These results show that caffeine can increase the extent to which people systematically process and are influenced by a persuasive communication.

I should perhaps add that the leap from their findings to the rise of modern rationalism is entirely my own.

Manual trackback: Stephen Laniel; Brad DeLong

Update, 13 June: On the basis of my correspondence about this post, I feel like I have to add that I was not serious. "Differential diagnosis, people" (to quote a great sage and eminent junkie): both coffee and the coffee-house were imported into Europe from the Levant, where the coffee-house developed as a recognizable social form, without triggering a local version of the Enlightenment. For that matter, all the physiological studies point to the influence of caffeine as such, not just coffee, so why not tea? (Though, come to think of it, didn't the proto-scientific and industrial development of the Song dynasty coincide with the rise of tea houses?) No doubt patterns of caffeine consumption have had some effect on culture, and it would be nice if historians could study them, but not like this. I'm a reductionist, but when I toss out simplistic biological explanations for complicated, ill-defined social phenomena, I'm joking, unlike some people.

Also: Ruchira Dutta writes with news of a learned investigation into related questions, A. A. Reade's Study and Stimulants; or, the Use of Intoxicants and Narcotics in Relation to Intellectual Life, as Illustrated by Personal Communications on the Subject, from Men of Letters and of Science (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1883). As the subtitle suggests, it largely consists of letters from various eminences of the day on their own experiences of using drugs, and thoughts on whether and how drugs are of use to intellectuals. Some of them are quite charming, in a rather prim way. Thus H. H. Bancroft's letter, in its entirety: "In my opinion some constitutions are benefited by a moderate use of tobacco and alcohol; others are not. But to touch these things is dangerous." Or, speaking of the rise of rationalism, Mr. W. E. H. Lecky: "I am not a smoker, and am therefore unable to give you any evidence on the subject." Other correspondents were not similarly inhibited by their lack of first person data, such as Keshub Chunder Sen ("The problem you have undertaken to solve is, indeed, one of intense importance and interest, and all who can ought to help its solution in the interests both of science and morality") or Mr. Ivan Tourguéneff.

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; The Great Transformation

Posted at June 08, 2006 17:49 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth