Licking trees: Why do we drink coffee instead of taking caffeine pills?

I have a mild coffee addiction. The aroma of good coffee is intoxicating, and the balanced bitterness of an Americano just hits the spot in the morning.

The funny thing is, I used to hate the taste of coffee. Yet now on most days I will gladly spend a few dollars at Einstein’s or Starbucks.

I also appreciate a good beer. A brown ale with a hint of vanilla, a pale ale like Magic Hat #9, or a Tucher hefewizen. There is a remarkable variety and depth among beers, and I love trying out new brews.

However, my first Natural Light in a friend’s basement in high school was awful. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would drink something that tasted like urine. But now, I can spend $5 on a bottle of craft beer without second thought because it tastes delicious to me.

Coffee as a drug-vehicle

It’s funny how over time coffee and beer became habits of mine. I had to acquire both tastes. Why is it that so many people do acquire these particular tastes that initially offend our tongues? The answer is simple and unsurprising: Both coffee and beer are vehicles for psychoactive drugs (caffeine and alcohol) with pleasant effects.

You might initially drink a coffee as a pick-me-up in the morning (not initially for its flavor), and perhaps have a beer to relax after a long day of work (though at first not because you like beer). But here’s an interesting question: Why not just take a caffeine pill instead of coffee when we need some energy — or a quick shot of alcohol instead of a beer when we want to take the edge off?

While this might seem like a dumb question at first, it is interesting because a caffeine pill more purely meets the need that coffee initially fills, i.e. a quick burst of energy.

It’s cheaper and more direct — a caffeine pill costs less than 10 cents and is equivalent (in terms of active ingredient) to a cup and a half of fresh coffee. Further, it doesn’t have the “learning curve” of coffee — it’s flavorless. Yet how many people do you know that pop caffeine pills instead of drinking coffee? No one does that. Even though on some level it is more logical — it delivers the effect without the unnecessary ceremony. You should take caffeine pills for energy, and drink a beverage¬†for its flavor.

Drinking Honestly

A friend of mine relayed an interesting story about a drinking habit of someone they knew. When this person wanted to drink, he would measure out a few shots of alcohol and drink it quickly with a funnel (kind of like some people funnel beers in college). In about an hour, the alcohol would take effect suddenly.

While most people might think this is weird, I respect this odd habit: It seems more intellectually honest. Many people drink to get drunk sometimes on the weekend, and get caught up in elaborate ceremonies: Drinking games, beer after beer, mixed drinks and shots taken over time. Why not just embrace that ultimately drinking is all about alcohol: Purify the effect and admit that you are just consuming a drug to temporarily affect your psychology.

Licking Trees

The point of all this is just to bring to awareness that the habits you acquire are mostly a function of what they are a vehicle for; running and sex provide endorphins, wine and beer provide alcohol, coffee and soda provide caffeine. Many things have the potential for the same depth and variety that beers or coffees demonstrate.

But beers and coffees are drugs at heart, socially-acceptable ones at that, with years of accumulated ceremony and culture. You can probably acquire a taste for anything given enough persistence, but you are more likely to acquire those that bait your reward circuits and/or are already socially established.

Hidden depth and variety is all around us. As a parting thought, imagine that every day for two years you go out each morning and you lick a different tree. I think that over time if you kept the habit up you would actually develop a taste for them. You would begin to perhaps prefer deciduous over conifers, and find new dimensions of variation among different barks. You might begin to recognize the effects of different soils on flavor, or how being struck by lightning leaves a certain bitterness. Perhaps in some alternate world, such a hobby emerged instead of stamp collecting or bird-watching (both of which also have surprising depth).

Also, my life will be complete if someone actually undertakes and documents this experiment for me.

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