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Pollan and Coffee, Sitting in a Tree: T-w-e-a-k-i-n-g

How Michael Pollan's chapter on caffeine in This Is Your Mind On Plants blows a generational opportunity to shift the narrative on sleep

Kyle Thiermann

Michael Pollan wields an influence like few other writers out there. His books aren’t just financial successes, they change conversation and become cultural playbooks for years to come. Walk through the halls of any ecology department and the undergrads will still be clutching The Omnivore's Dilemma and it’s possible that in time we’ll look back at How To Change Your Mind as one of the most important books about psychedelics ever written. But when I listened to Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World, a standalone audiobook that also forms one of the three sections of This Is Your Mind On Plants, it felt like Mr. Impeccable has phoned it in.

Unlike Pollan’s book on psychedelics, which made its way into the hands of policymakers and helped usher in a new wave of interest in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, his deconstruction of caffeine lacks immediacy. Pollan names coffee as a “primary culprit” of fractured sleep, but tonally, he does it with a shrug. It’s as if Pollan is a Grand Canyon tour guide telling a bus full of tourists, “If you look to your left you’ll see a cliff which we’re gonna drive over in two minutes; on your right is a really cool cactus.” 

He simultaneously names, then minimizes the problem. 

Society's Sleep is a Nightmare

The closest Pollan gets is when he hands the mic to sleep researcher Matt Walker, who, like a haunted Jon Snow warning us of White Walkers, says, “If you plot the rise in the number of Starbucks coffee houses over the last 30 years and the rise in sleep deprivation over that period, the lines look very similar.” Walker goes on to say that “[Coffee] represents one of the largest and most unsupervised drug studies ever conducted on the human race,” before ominously concluding, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”

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In Walker’s
book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, he doesn’t normalize the shitty sleep health crisis. He links chronic sleep loss to heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke, and Alzheimer's disease—five of the leading causes of death in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three Americans lives in a chronic state of sleep deprivation. 

One. In. Three.

Pollan doesn’t want to come across as an evangelist. I can respect that. And unlike alcohol, OxyContin, or Bird scooters, it would be unfair to paint coffee as objectively harmful. The beans are high in antioxidants and associated with several cognitive benefits. But given the correlation between caffeine and disrupted sleep and given Pollan's enormous profile, had he made a call for society to prioritize sleep, his book may have had a significant impact on culture. Instead, it reads like a rushed follow-up to one that did.

Coffee and Writers: A (Co-Dependent) Love Story

One has to wonder: Would Pollan have tackled the issue with more moxie if he wasn’t a long-time coffee drinker himself? 

While writing the caffeine piece, Pollan decided to quit cold turkey. The following week, as he laments that he feels like a “dull pencil,” he’s forced to concede that coffee has been a writing crutch for him all along. At one point in the story, Pollan tells Walker that although he’s always considered himself a pretty good sleeper, he normally wakes up a few times a night. “That’s really not good,” Walker responds bluntly.

After detoxing for three months and harvesting the benefits of “sleeping like a teenager again,” Pollan reunites with his first cup of coffee. Walking through the doors of his favorite Berkeley cafe, The Cheeseboard, he describes it with such passion and voluminosity the reader wonders if an erotic scene is about to unfold between Pollan and the single-use cup. (Cue Marvin Gaye ...)

“I could almost feel the tiny molecules of caffeine spreading through my body, fanning out along the aerial pathways, sliding effortlessly through the walls of my cells, slipping across the blood-brain barrier to take up stations in my adenosine receptors … and this built and spread and coalesced until I decided euphoria was warranted … everything in my visual field seemed pleasantly italicized, filmic.”

Later that day, Pollan runs an errand to a garden center. Only while driving there does he admit to himself that his true motivation for the trip is because there’s a nearby Airstream trailer which serves really good espresso. “Already the insidious tentacles of dependence were beckoning,” Pollan writes half-jokingly, “It took all the willpower I could muster to resist it.”

Would Pollan have written in such a laissez-faire tone if he were sneaking off to an Airstream to buy caffeine pills?

“But First … Sleep.”

I don't mean to be harsh. I like Pollan and the world is a better place with him pounding away on his keyboard. He's both an expert researcher and an illustrious writer. These skills allow him to hold a reader's attention about a subject as seemingly banal as caffeine: A feat in and of itself. But the subject of sleep is even harder to cover. It makes people sleepy. If I tell you to yawn right now, where does your mind go? Like many other seemingly mundane subjects to cover, it's best done indirectly. Pollan had an ace in his pocket. He could have led the reader down the caffeine road, then BAM!–ended the piece with a call for society to start sleeping again. 

“What if society prioritized sleep the way we do coffee shops?”

That's all it would have taken. 

Right now, most of humanity is shuffling along, dead on their feet, exhausted and overworked, relying on copious amounts of caffeine just to make it through the day. One of the best lines in the book is when Pollan writes, “Caffeine equips us to cope with the world caffeine helped us to create.” What he fails to do is step back and ask the next question: “What world is that?”

Kyle Thiermann is a Patagonia surf ambassador, MUD\WTR's head of editorial and host of the Trends w/ Benefits podcast. Get more Kyle in your life at kyle.surf.

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