How Cognitive Ability Is Affected By Temperature Changes

It’s a cold winter’s day, and you’re solving some incredibly difficult math problems easily. You’re amazed at how quickly you’re able to breeze through without spending too much time on each one. However, on a summer morning a few months ago, the scorching heat was killing you and you had a term paper due the next day but hadn’t gotten past a few lines for hours. Does this sound familiar to you? Did you know that this change in cognitive ability is because your brain actually works better in cold weather than in hot weather? Stunned and wondering how that’s possible? Read on and be blown away by how your amazing brain functions.

Does Your Brain React To Changes In Temperature?

Your Brain Reacts To Temperature Change By Getting Your Body To Regulate Its Temperature

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While you probably can’t fathom how it’s possible, temperature does, in fact, play a role in the way your brain functions. Let’s break things down to understand this better. Your brain is an organ. And like every other organ, it needs energy to function. How does it get this energy? From glucose. Be it making a really hard decision or exercising, glucose is what your brain needs to make all kinds of mental and physical activities happen.

While this is the case, your brain also needs glucose to get your body to regulate its temperature. During winter, your body responds to low external temperatures by using glucose to shiver. Likewise, in summers, your body uses glucose to make you sweat as a response to high external temperatures; this prevents the occurrence of heat strokes and hypothermia – a condition in which your body temperature becomes abnormally low.

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Why Does Warm Weather Lower Cognitive Ability?

 In Warm Conditions, Your Brain Prioritizes Getting Your Body To Cool Itself Over Cognitive Processes

Cooling the body in warm weather seems to require more energy than warming it in cold weather. When it’s hot, your body uses more glucose to bring its temperature down so that homeostasis – regulation of body heat to maintain a constant internal body temperature – occurs. As your brain decides the priority of glucose utilization, when the weather is really hot, it instructs your body to prioritize cooling itself over, say, making a decision or solving a complex problem. This is likely the reason why your cognitive abilities are reduced in warm weather.

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How Was This Identified?

Research Suggests That More Glucose Is Utilized In Warm Weather To Regulate Body Temperature, Leaving Less Energy For Cognitive Processes

 

Two researchers conducted a study to confirm that cognitive abilities actually decrease in warm weather. They analyzed sales patterns for a number of lottery games with daily temperature as a function of the study. Sales for games that involved choosing between many options saw a fall every time the weather got hotter even by 1 degree Fahrenheit.

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The researchers then conducted a few more studies in which they analyzed the cognitive performance of participants by giving them problems of varying difficulties. They placed some participants in a cool room and some in a warm one. The studies showed that the participants in the cool room solved even the most complex problems in lesser time than those in the warm room. This showed that problem solving is adversely affected by warm temperatures.1

To confirm that it was actually less glucose that was causing this effect in the participants, the researchers conducted yet another study. In this new study, they reduced the glucose supply of half of the participants before putting them into rooms of varying temperature and, then, tested cognitive performance. The participants in warm conditions performed in a manner quite similar to those deprived of glucose. This established the relationship between temperature, glucose, and cognitive functioning.

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Additional Note

It’s important to note that this research doesn’t suggest that people in constantly warm weather have poor cognitive function or those in constantly cool weather have better cognitive function. Instead, it simply suggests that when you are in weather warmer than you are used to – even if it is an increase in temperature of 1 or 2 degrees Fahrenheit – cognitive function is likely to slow down as the body is using the energy at its disposal to maintain internal body temperature rather than using it for cognitive processes.

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