The coffee break is a real, and crucial, ritual for some workers who take advantage of this moment of relaxation and social interaction to refocus, (re)motivate themselves, chat with their colleagues, take a breather, or simply take a few minutes to recharge their batteries.
Rest time is far from trivial – as evidenced by the number of debates that followed its temporary disappearance during Covid lockdowns – and is said to contribute not only to well-being at work but also to productivity.
Contrary to popular belief, grabbing a coffee appears to be anything but a waste of time, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at New York University Tandon School of Engineering (NYU Tandon), the results of which are published in the journal “Nature Scientific Reports”.
The scientists relied on a new algorithm developed by Rose Faghih, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the university. Called “Mindwatch”, it has been developed to monitor and analyse the brain activity of users wearing an electrodermal activity sensor.
Equipped with skin-monitoring wristbands and brain-monitoring headbands, study participants were subjected to cognitive tests – a specific task designed to assess their working memory and cognitive function – while indulging, or not, in certain daily pleasures such as listening to music, drinking coffee, or smelling perfume.
The researchers’ findings suggest that music and coffee influenced the brain activity of the participants, even claiming that these pleasures were associated with “peak cognitive performance”. The results were also positive, though less conclusive, for fragrances.
It’s worth noting that listening to music emerged as the most convincing stimulant to improve cognitive performance, particularly in tasks requiring concentration and memory, just ahead of coffee consumption, which led to “notable” performance gains.
“The pandemic has impacted the mental well-being of many people across the globe and now more than ever, there is a need to seamlessly monitor the negative impact of everyday stressors on one’s cognitive function,” Faghih said in a statement.
With this study, the researchers not only shed light on two of the stimulants capable of boosting people’s cognitive performance – it also reveals how the algorithm could ultimately help people to perform their professional tasks to the best of their abilities.
“Right now Mindwatch is still under development, but our eventual goal is that it will contribute to technology that could allow any person to monitor their own brain cognitive arousal in real time, detecting moments of acute stress or cognitive disengagement, for example,” the lead author added.
“At those times, Mindwtch could ‘nudge’ a person towards simple and safe interventions – perhaps listening to music – so they could get themselves into a brain state in which they feel better and perform job or school tasks more successfully.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether these stimulants, which could be potential strategies for improving cognitive performance, actually work on a large scale and for all individuals. This is something the study doesn’t specify at present, and which should be the subject of further research.