Brian Carper

I Reprogrammed My Brain to Like Coffee

2019 Apr 05 — Friday

I've always been a bit jealous of coffee people. What a good feeling it must be to wake up and drink a hot cup of caffeine-infused bean-water. The only problem that until very recently, I couldn't stand the taste of coffee.

I've heard coffee described as an acquired taste. Well I wondered, if a taste can be acquired, could I force myself to acquire it, for something I hated?

Stage 1: Tastes Like Dirt Water

First, a big question: cheap coffee or expensive coffee? For some things, there's a big difference. Craft beer is delicious, and mass-market swill is the opposite of delicious. But for other things, the expensive version is barely different from the cheap. I don't know which is true of coffee, but I figured the price difference between cheap and expensive coffee isn't that substantial, so I might as well start with expensive, to increase my chances.

So I went to the fanciest coffee place in town and got a cup of the fanciest coffee they sold. I don't know what it was exactly, because I don't know a thing about coffee. All I know is it had no cream or sugar. I drank it right down, and as I expected, it was the worst thing I could ever remember drinking. No exaggeration. It was absolutely dreadful. It was bitter and left a gross aftertaste I couldn't get rid of. The bottom 1/4th of the cup had some kind of particulate in it.

I bought a big bag to take home.

Stage 2: Tastes Like Sugar

I got a French press, because I read that it has benefits over a drip coffee maker, in particular that it might result in higher caffeine content. Plus it seemed like a smaller investment than a big electronic device, easier to give away to a friend if I ended up not needing it

I also got cream and sugar. A lot of it. My theory was that almost anything is palatable when it's mixed with enough cream and sugar. I could start with a hefty amount,, and decrease it over time, to get used to the coffee flavor gradually.

During my first week of coffee drinking, I was doing a 50/50 mix of coffee and cream, and at least a teaspoon of sugar. (In retrospect, most of the flavor alteration came from the sugar. The cream had more of a dilution effect. Possibly, brewing a weaker cup of coffee using more water or less coffee bean powder could've had the safe effect without all the empty calories.)

I was counting on my stupid monkey brain to start associating the bitter coffee flavor with good things: the rush of of caffeine, the warmth of a hot beverage on a cold morning. So I made it a habit: I made sure the first thing I did every morning for a week was drink a cup of coffee.

Stage 3: Tastes Like Coffee?

From the second week onward, I started decreasing the amount of cream I used. It went surprisingly quickly. By the third week, I was down to just a splash of cream, but still about a teaspoon of sugar.

I also bought and tried a couple different kinds of coffee: dark roast, light roast, whatever the supermarket sold. I gravitated toward one light roast in particular, so I keep drinking that one. I guess different coffees do taste different.

After about a month, I found myself actually looking forward to coffee in the morning. At this point I tried a cup of coffee with no cream. I found that it tasted almost the same as with the tiny amount of cream I was using, and it was very tolerable; almost pleasant! Then I started decreasing sugar.

It was only about a month before I was happily drinking black coffee.

Do I like coffee now?

I don't remember the exact day I flipped from drinking coffee as part of my experiment, to actually liking the taste. But I can honestly say today that I do like the taste, and I'm still drinking coffee regularly. Which kind of blows my mind. I would've given even odds for this plan to work at all. But it did work, and it was easy.

I'm kind of curious of the mechanism. I know the brain dampens our senses when a stimulus is repeated over and over. Some optical illusions work that way. It's also why we can't smell our own stink, but walking into someone else's house, we immediately smell the change in the air. And why we aren't distracted by our clothes touching our skin 24/7. How much of growing to like coffee is because my brain started ignoring or filtering out some of the sensory input? I didn't drink that much coffee after all; one or two cups per day. So how much of acquiring a taste is due to other things?

Also, I wonder what else can I acquire a taste for. I know there are things people eat and drink in other places that seem disgusting to me. Bugs, various mammals and sea creatures... different ways of preparing food that I'm not used to, things like that. I now have no doubt I could grow to like many of them. But... maybe not all of them? Weirdly, I've tried this kind of thing before, and failed. I hate the taste of tomatoes. Every couple of years I try a tomato again to see if I still hate it, and yep, I still do. Something in tomatoes makes me literally retch. Is there an amount or frequency of tomato I could eat that would make me start liking it?

What about other senses? I don't like country music, or death metal; could I grow to like those? It seems likely.

It really makes me start to think about how much of "me" is a consequence of the kinds of stimuli I'm exposted to. Things like "are you a cat person or a dog person?" are part of what we consider a person's personality, but if it's all based on a coin flip which tastes we acquire, it doesn't seem like it means as much. Intellectually I know that this is pretty much exactly the case, but forcing myself to become a coffee person makes it really tangible.


Thanks for reading!
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