Cognitive Fitness Chapter 10 – Can you concentrate when it’s hot?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. The last blogs started to look at environmental factors when we looked at noise. This time we consider the effect of temperature…

Our brains monitor our body temperature and send nerve impulses to the skin if it’s too hot or too cold. The body has different ways to try to reduce or increase core body temperature as a consequence – think about what happens when you’re cold – your muscles contract, causing you to shiver. Our body temperature has a direct impact on how comfortable we feel. Being uncomfortable is distracting and it’s more difficult to concentrate.

Why is temperature important for our brains?

Research shows a significant negative effect on our cognition when temperatures are high (i.e. above 30C), and although the underlying factors are not well understood, it’s widely recognised that temperature is the modal form of stress – linked to our very survival. It is believed that we have a greater tolerance for cold as opposed to heat.

Warmer temperatures seem to tax us more significantly (we spend more attention addressing the perceived ‘threat’), leaving less resources available for cognitive tasks. This is particularly evident when tackling complex tasks. It’s also clear that the impact depends on the duration of the task and the intensity of the temperature.

Interestingly, cold temperatures (i.e. less than 12C) tend to result in moderately faster response times in cognitive tasks when compared to high temperatures.

Water helps to regulate internal body temperature, so keeping hydrated is important.

Is it all about personal choice?

More recent research has suggested that individual preferences are better predictors of how well our brains work under different temperature conditions. Our preferences of “thermal comfort” are highly individual and can be affected by what we are wearing, our body type and our metabolism.

Put simply, if we feel that the conditions are right – we are less distracted and can focus on the task in hand. If we are uncomfortable, we think more about how uncomfortable we are – inevitably leading to some deterioration in performance.

It’s hard to be specific about how much deterioration will result – this will vary by individual, the task, the duration of the discomfort and length of the task etc.

And being in control?

It is nearly impossible to find a temperature that will be acceptable to everyone in an office at the same time, as anyone responsible for managing a building will know! The competing demands of those that are freezing and therefore want heaters under their desks vs those that would like the windows open to let in a fresh cool breeze because they are overheating are pretty tricky to manage.

Having the ability to work anywhere in your office is vital in order that you can take advantage of the hot / cold / cool places and exercise choice to get the conditions you need. That’s all very well, but how do you find out where are the most comfortable places for you – other than trial and error? Some organisations are actively making information available to guide thermal comfort choices by using accurate sensors placed in different areas to measure temperature (and even noise) so that people don’t have to spend all their time seeking out the right conditions for them. The ultimate is where people have thermal comfort devices that allow them to adjust the temperature in their immediate area.

Cognitive-Fitness-Temperature-awa-advanced-workplace-associates

So what can you do?

Recognise that if you are uncomfortable, your performance will actually be suffering – along with your mood! Try to seek out the best environment to suit your personal preferences, for the work you need to do:

  1. Avoid hot places if you need to focus and concentrate
  2. Go somewhere warm if you need to relax following a stressful situation
  3. Dress in loose layers so you can adjust your own body temperate more directly
  4. If you are hot:
    • drink more water – you’ll feel cooler if you are hydrated
    • use a spray bottle to spray a fine mist on your skin
    • wet your hairline – it will cool as it evaporates
    • run cold water on your wrists for 10 secs
  5. If you are cold:
    • drink more warm drinks
    • try ginger which works as a stimulant to get the blood circulating and makes the body temperature rise
    • eat healthy fats (a low body fat ratio is one reason for poor body temperature)
    • do some brisk exercise to warm up your muscles
  6. Finally, be aware of your temperature and level of comfort. Most people are less productive if they are uncomfortable. So don’t put up with being uncomfortable – find somewhere better so you can focus on the task in hand.

Give your brain a great day – try to find the most comfortable conditions to do your work!

Next time we’ll look at the next environmental factor that came out of the research. This is the eighth factor – Task Interruptions – turns out multi-tasking isn’t good!