Mind & Body

Caffeine Causes Widespread "Brain Entropy" — and That's Actually a Good Thing

It's just common sense: the most orderly minds are the most brilliant ones. How else could a scientist memorize a complete taxonomy of the various types of quarks or weasels or planetary bodies? Their brains must be highly organized machines, with every piece of data carefully filed away and every method perfected exactly. Right? Wrong.

Mind-Blowing Mayhem

There's not much debate on the subject: a more chaotic brain is a more effective brain. They call the quality "brain entropy," (entropy means "disorder," essentially) and it measures the complexity and irregularity of brain activity from one moment to the next. For a study published in 2018, NYU researchers examined the brains of 892 people and found that increased entropy in the prefrontal cortex, inferior temporal lobes, and cerebellum was associated with higher intelligence.

Using an fMRI machine, the researchers analyzed how much blood each section of the brain would demand from moment to moment, and pinpoint exactly where in the lobes that blood was being directed. The researchers then attempted to predict exactly which sections of the brain would "light up" at any point in time. As it turned out, the people with the most unpredictable brains scored the highest on the Shipley Vocabulary and WASI Matrix Reasoning tests.

We generally associate entropy with chaos or decay, but in this case, it's a sign of a brain working correctly. It actually makes a lot of sense. An effective brain is one that doesn't always rely on the same patterns of thinking, and one that can solve problems in unexpected ways. By contrast, a brain with lower entropy is characterized by order and repetition. The most orderly brains of all? They belong to comatose people and people in the deepest sleep.

How to Have (Chaotic) Good Ideas

Chances are, you're not going to get the chance to measure your brain entropy. Still, you might be interested in some proven methods to boost it. Lucky for you, there's a good chance you're already taking steps to increase the chaos of your inner world. Step one: drink coffee. A study into the effects of caffeine pills on the entropy level of a resting brain found that about two coffee cups' worth of caffeine was enough to increase blood flow in the lateral prefrontal cortex, among other vital regions. No wonder they call it "brain juice."

There's another way you can increase the entropy of your brain, and unlike a caffeine habit, we can guarantee that you're doing it. All you need to do is age. Yes, entropy naturally increases with age — we suppose that's just the wisdom of the years accumulating. After all, the longer you've been alive, the more types of thinking you'll have encountered or come up with on your own. And with that kind of broad experience, your brain will have a million different possible ways to think.

Learn more about how your mind operates with "The Brain: The Story of You" by neuroscientist David Eagleman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 4, 2018

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