During the fall and winter, there’s nothing on our to-do list we can’t accomplish. Plan a party for 15 people? Check. Finish school shopping for three kids in three different grades? Already done. Buy and wrap Christmas gifts for the family? We could do that blindfolded. But the moment it gets hot out, being productive can seem impossible. According to new research, the phenomenon we like to call “summer brain” really exists, and it could explain why it’s so hard to get things done when it’s warm.
In a 2018 study published in PLOS Medicine, researcher Joe Allen and his colleagues studied 44 college students living in dorms in Boston during a heatwave. Half the students lived in dorms with central air conditioning, with the average room temperature at 71 degrees. The other half lived in dorms without air conditioning where the average temperature was almost 80 degrees.
Allen and his team sent the students two quizzes each day, one in the morning and one at another time, for 12 days. One test assessed attention and processing speeds, while the other test quizzed the students’ working memory and cognitive speed.
The results showed that students without air-conditioned dorms were slower and less accurate than their peers living with air conditioning. “We found that the students who were in the non-air-conditioned buildings actually had slower reaction times: 13 percent lower performance on basic arithmetic tests, and nearly a 10-percent reduction in the number of correct responses per minute,” Allen said.
These findings seem to back up similar results from a 2006 study that found office workers’ performance began to drop off when office temperatures rose above the mid-70s. The study determined the ideal office temperature for productivity to be 72 degrees.
“We all tend to think we can compensate, [that] we can do just fine [when it’s hot],” Allen said. But the “evidence shows that the indoor temperature can have a dramatic impact on our ability to be productive and learn.” So the next time you’re in the office and are feeling a bit lethargic, maybe it’s time to turn down the AC.