This is how the heatwave is affecting your brain function

Research has shown the detrimental effects of working without air conditioning – something many are experiencing while working from home.

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

Unfortunately, though, the current UK heatwave we’re all experiencing is taking place during the week, meaning many of us are attempting to get through work while dealing with sweltering temperatures.

As a result, we might be a little slower than usual at getting through our workload, and there is a completely valid and scientific reason to explain why this happens in the heat and why you’ll hear people say “it’s just too hot to do anything”.

A 2016 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 at 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 22°C) 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 27°C) seemed to be mentally negatively affected by the heat and were unable to gather their thoughts quickly or fill out the questions speedily.

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% 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 affect 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 have consequences on the health of the public, and that outdoor temperatures can exacerbate the humidity of indoor environments too.

Dr Elisabeth Philipps, a clinical neuroscientist, has also shared how the heatwave often results in brain fog and affects our ability to be productive.

“As the temperature goes up, the cognitive function goes down because heat affects our brain,” she says. “Higher temperatures can stop nerve fibres from working properly. This means that sometimes messages cannot get to and from the brain which is why you may experience fatigue, weakness, or problems with balance or vision.

“The hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates our temperature) has to work very hard in the warmer weather. This part of the brain is also affected by hormonal changes, so combined with the heat this can slow brain messages from getting through which will affect our brain function, mood and cognition.”

So if you’re working from home with no air conditioning and relying solely on a fan and the occasional gust of breeze, it’s understandable why you may be a little slow when it comes to getting things done – and there’s no reason to feel bad about it.

Image: Getty

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