Archive for October, 2010

Brain-bending thoughts on a coffee experiment

The Stat-Ease training center here at our world headquarters in Minneapolis features a wonderful single-cup brewing system that you can see demoed here.  When we are not holding a workshop, I sometimes sneak in to steal a cup late in the day.  By then I am reaching my limit, so I brew a “half-calf” at the half-cup setting.  Being a chemical engineer, I calculate that, in this case, half of half makes a whole, that is, coffee with the normal concentration of caffeine.  Does that make sense?

Making a tasty and effective cup of coffee is a huge deal for knowledge workers who need to keep their heads in gear from start to finish of every single day.  One of our workshop students, a PhD, has been picking my brain about testing coffee blends on her staff of scientists.  She proposes to do a mixture design such as I did on varying types of beers (see Mixture Design Brews Up New Beer Cocktail—Black & Blue Moon).

Obviously overall liking on a sensory basis should be first and foremost for such an experiment on coffee – a 5 to 9-point scale works well for this.*  However, the tricky part is assessing the impact of coffee for accelerating information processing and general problem-solving, which I hypothesize depends on level of caffeine.  I wonder if an online “brain training” service, such as this one developed by neuroscientists at Stanford and UCSF, might provide a valid measure.

The down side of doing a proper test on whether coffee improves cognitive skills will be the necessity of reverting to the base line, that is, every morning getting up and trying to function without the first cup.

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

— Alfréd Rényi

*Turn your volume down (to not hear the advert) and see this primer on sensory evaluation by S-Cool– a UK educational site for teenagers.

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Caltech prof puts finger on what turns on consumers

The November/December issue of American Scientist provides an intriguing heads-up from Caltech neuroeconomist Antonio Rangel on impulse buying.  His group randomly presented items to students in varying ways – by name, picture and with the actual object.  Buyers paid 50 percent more for the real goods!  However, when the item could be seen under glass but not available to be held, this difference in desirability disappeared.  Expect to see even more irresistible items showing up at the checkout counters to entice you into an impulse purchase. : (

“Next time you’re stuffed and the waiter wheels around the dessert cart, know that the odds are against you. Just cross your fingers that the chocolate cakes under a glass dome, to help you resist the urge.”

– Christopher Intagliata, Scientific American reporter (from text of podcast here)

PS. While researching Rangel, I came across this article in the Caltech News on another study he did on buying behavior – in this case the propensity to confuse price with quality for wine.  Here you can learn why Rangel is a “neuro” economist – he directly measures brain activity, which provides more reliable measures of consumer response than what they might admit when asked how they feel about something.  See how MRI signals change in student brains confronted with money, trinkets versus snacks (can you guess which turns them on the most?) at this web-page detailing research by the Rangel Neuroeconomics Laboratory.

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