This Is My Brain on Coffee

Investigating Dan Pink’s need for coffee.

Call me Mr. Coffee. I don’t just enjoy the stuff. I need the stuff. But why? Simply because of the happy dance that my brain cells perform whenever they meet caffeine molecules? Or is the need lodged somewhere deep in my subconscious? I turned to ZMET to find out.


The question: “What are your thoughts and feelings about coffee as a morning wake-up beverage?”

ZMET Act One: The Pictures

I spend about six hours paging through magazines and catalogs for images that capture my state of mind, adding a few photos of my own. I imagine what I feel like in the morning, both before and after my coffee, and look for pictures that portray my daily transformation. The big struggle: If I don’t find 12 images, I’m in trouble.

ZMET Act Two: The Interview

At about noon in the Seeing the Voice of the Customer Lab, Randi Cohen, Z-metter extraordinaire, fastens a small microphone to my shirt. For the next two hours, she interviews me with the ferocity of Sam Donaldson and the subtlety of Sigmund Freud.

We begin with the image of a sport-utility vehicle. I explain: “I’m not really on a smooth path until I’ve had my coffee.” “What is this path?” Cohen asks. “Where is this path going?” I mumble something about the path leading to the rest of my day.


Next picture: the newspaper from the day that Cal Ripken played in his 2,131st straight game. Because I drink coffee every morning, I’m “the Cal Ripken of coffee.” She probes: “When Cal Ripken is playing, there are lots of people watching who appreciate his play.” I backtrack: My coffee-drinking isn’t a spectator sport. “It’d be like if Cal Ripken every day took batting practice in his backyard,” I offer.

We go to a magazine photo of a man and a woman canoeing along a tranquil stream – which brings together the feeling of smoothness that I get from coffee and the fact that I always have morning coffee with my wife. “Why is it important to do that with your wife?” Cohen asks. “I guess it’s a sign that we’re in it together,” I speculate. “It’s sort of a shared addiction.”

Jerry Zaltman enters the interview room. He listens a bit, and then poses the next question: “If you could walk up to coffee and say, ‘Hey, how ya doin’ today? How do you feel today?’ what would its answer be?” My response: “I think its answer would be ‘I feel sharp. I feel acute.’ ” “Why sharp or acute?” Zaltman wonders. That’s my idea of the personality of a cup of coffee: “It’s serious, but serious in a very penetrating way.” After letting that sink in, Zaltman softly continues his inquiry: “Now that we’ve anthropomorphized this cup of coffee, let’s say that it’s thinking. What’s it thinking about you?” I reply, “What’s it thinking about me? Well, this is my first thought, so I’ll just go with it, even though it might be somewhat unflattering to me: The coffee’s saying, ‘Why are you trying to be like me?’ “

ZMET Act Three: The Collage

The interrogation over, I walk – a little drained, a little perplexed – into another room at the lab. Graphic artist Marion Finkle helps me design the collage that will summarize all the ideas that have been percolating in my head. First we create a backdrop composed of several dozen small images of the Cal Ripken newspaper. Then I pick my way through the other images – water cascading into a body cast, a man kick-starting the sport-utility vehicle, the shot of the canoe.

Finkle asks me to summarize the story that the picture is telling. “The overall story is about preparation the night before because of the expectation of morning immobility, then the release of power and the start of the day, then the fact that this goes on every morning.” “Anything else to add?” she asks. I look at my collage again. Then, for reasons I’d rather not subject to ZMET scrutiny, I begin to gush like Sally Field at the Oscars: “I like my image,” I cry. “I really like it!”


The lesson for coffee-sellers: Market your product to me using images of movement and achievement. The lesson for myself: Maybe I’m drinking too much java.