Life

This is how the heatwave is affecting your brain function

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Megan Murray
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New research has shown the detrimental effects of working without air conditioning.

There’s a reason that sunny days are supposed to be spent on a sun lounger, Aperol Spritz in hand, doing nothing.

Of course, who doesn’t like chilling out and soaking up the sun? However, it turns out there’s actually a scientific reason to explain why we get slower and more lethargic in the heat, with many of us complaining “it’s just too hot to do anything.”

A newly published study has explained the correlation between temperature and brain function, showing that the hotter it is, the slower our minds work.

Conducted in a heatwave over the summer of 2016 in Massachusetts, USA, researchers followed the behaviour of 44 university students to measure how they reacted to answering test questions in different temperatures.

For 12 days researchers sent the students two cognition tests on their phones and asked them to fill them out in their homes, some of which had access to air conditioning and some which did not. The first test was specifically designed to look at attention and processing speed and the second, to evaluate cognitive speed and working memory.

Results showed that the students living in accommodation with air conditioning (temperature average of 71 degrees) not only did better in both tests, but completed them in a quicker time, too.

Those who lived in buildings that didn’t have an air conditioning system (temperature average of 80 degrees) seemed to be mentally negatively effected by the heat, and were unable to gather their thoughts quickly or fill out the questions speedily.

Woman struggling in hot weather in the office

Ladies, get yourself a desk fan. 

Joe Allen, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, lead the research and spoke to National Public Radio about the difference in performance. He said: “We found that the students who were in the non-air-conditioned buildings actually had slower reaction times: 13% lower performance on basic arithmetic tests, and nearly a 10 percent reduction in the number of correct responses per minute.”

Allen explains that most of us think we can “do just fine” in a heatwave and don’t think that creeping temperatures will effect us. 

“I think it’s a little bit akin to the frog in the boiling water,” Allen continues. There’s a “slow, steady — largely imperceptible — rise in temperature, and you don’t realise it’s having an impact on you.”

But he warns that “evidence shows that the indoor temperature can have a dramatic impact on our ability to be productive and learn” and so it’s important to safeguard yourself in hot weather. 

The study seeks to point out that heatwaves (similar to the Mediterranean-like conditions we’re experiencing here) have consequences on the health of the public, and that outdoor temperatures can exacerbate the humidity of indoor environments too.

Although this experiment concentrated on students, researchers think that the results would be similar for those working in an office environment and that because of the continuing effects of climate change we will need to create more “sustainable adaptation solutions to foster adequate cognition during extreme heat events.”

For all the office workers out there currently locked in a feud over the air conditioning, this research should give you the winning argument. 

Images: Jamakassi / Getty 

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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