The Met Office has warned that parts of Britain will be hotter than the Sahara this week. But how does the heat affect the way our brains function, our performance and wellbeing? Neuroscientist Dr André Vermeulen explains.
As organisations become more complex and dynamic, our ability to learn from experience becomes more important. This is known as our ‘learning agility’ – the power to move fast and easily and to think and draw conclusions quickly.
But before people can become agile learners, they need to optimise the key drivers that influence brain performance: brain fitness, sleep, stress, diet, mindset, movement, cognitive skills, and physical environment.
People also need to integrate all the neurophysiological attributes that affect their learning agility and learning ability – a competence referred to as neuro-agility. Developing this is a prerequisite for the brain to function at optimum level as one integrated system without any neurological hindrances.
The heat is on
However, an important ergonomic factor having an influence on the brain is temperature. During summer, we tend to seek cooler environments, as this is a natural response of our bodies to regulate our internal temperatures.
Our core temperature is continuously finding balance with the ambient temperatures around us, but when the ambient temperatures are extremely warm this can have a negative impact on our brain’s ability to perform.
Heat is one of two drivers, stress and physical environment, therefore it is very important to do all we can to proactively regulate and manage it. This can prevent stress on the brain and maintain effective cognitive performance.
Optimising your brain fitness in this way will result in ease of learning, thinking faster and smarter, and processing information more effectively.
Lack of brain fitness due to the heat will result in alternating between hemispheres rather than processing information simultaneously, causing you to think, learn, and process information longer, slower and harder.
So, how can employees regulate their temperatures in hot conditions? In a working environment it is always better to be subjected to cooler surroundings so that the body can expend its energy on cognitive processes instead of correcting the temperature state of the body.
To defeat the heat and keep teams ‘brain fit’, it helps to ensure they have the right resources on hand to keep cool, such as:
- Keeping the water dispensers topped up. Drinking at least four to six glasses a day keeps our brains hydrated which affects overall brain health
- Ensure blinds are on the windows. Avoid working in hot areas or full sun, if possible
- People are working in air-conditioned or well-ventilated areas
- Encouraging staff to take regular breaks
- Arranging high physical energy activities in the early mornings or at cooler times of the day
- Staff should exercise in the early mornings as opposed to late afternoons when the temperature of the environment is much higher
- Recommending protective clothing over their head when working outside – the head has many thermal receptors that increase the temperature in the body
- Wearing protective but breathable or loose clothing to help skin cool down through perspiration.
When we don’t follow the tips above, the heat acts as a stressor to the body causing us to spend unnecessary energy and decrease our performance.
Neurotransmitters have different functions, but in general make us feel good, strengthen the immune system, facilitate electrical transmission and energise us.
However, studies have shown that heat influences our neurotransmitter production negatively, resulting in reduced electrical transmission between brain cells therefore affecting our productivity at work.
Other studies have also found correlations between heat and an individual’s mood, specifically influencing the mood of the individual negatively.
Heat is not conducive to efficient brain functioning as it influences our productivity and effectiveness negatively at work. This is why we need to do all we can to stay cool, helping our brains maintain optimal cognitive performance and improving their agility at the same time.