When author Michael Pollan decided to tackle the subject of psychoactive drugs—specifically, opium, mescaline, and caffeine—for his new book, This Is Your Mind On Plants, he consumed the first two in the name of experimental journalism. But he actually stopped using caffeine, just to see what would happen, and it's that experience he documents in an excerpt published Tuesday in the Guardian. Besides detailing his withdrawal symptoms once that "dark day" of eliminating coffee from his diet arrived, Pollan also takes a look back at the centuries-old use of caffeine found in coffee and tea, with everyone from Buddhist monks trying to stay awake during meditation sessions to writers in English coffeehouses gulping down the drug. Caffeine has even become political at times: England's King Charles II, worried that said coffeehouses were incubators for political rebellions, kick-started an ill-fated "war on coffee" to shut such foment down.
Pollan delves into both the physical benefits caffeine confers—he cites studies that show the drug has been tied to increased alertness, memory, focus, and even physical performance such as endurance—and its issues, notably the havoc it causes to our sleep cycles. This, he notes, leads to an "insidious" irony: "The drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation; it is also the principal tool we rely on to remedy the problem." He also comes to realize how ingrained caffeine is in our daily existence and functioning. "It's so pervasive that it's easy to overlook the fact that to be caffeinated is not baseline consciousness but, in fact, an altered state," he writes. "It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible." More here on how Pollan fared during his caffeine-free three months—and what happened once he finally allowed himself a double-shot espresso again. (Read more coffee stories.)