How do different environmental conditions impact cognition?

In everyday life, we experience changes in temperature and altitude. Depending on what jobs or hobbies we have, we may be exposed to extreme environmental conditions, such as high altitude. Depending on what environmental conditions we are exposed to, these conditions may impact our cognitive functioning. In this blog post, we discuss how different environmental conditions impact cognition.

How does heat impact cognition?

When temperatures soar inside and outside, our bodies lose water and our internal temperature rises. In studies of factory workers, when temperatures exceed 23 ℃, workers were more likely to make mistakes and engage in unsafe behaviors. While performance of simple tasks like memory recall is often preserved, exposure to heat for 45 minutes at 50 ℃ at 50% relative humidity has been shown to cause deficits in complex cognitive tasks requiring cognitive functions such as working memory, executive functioning, and attention. Researchers have found that heat stress may increase plasma serotonin levels, which inhibit dopamine production which is needed for complex task performance. Further research is needed to control for variability in the literature, such as participant hydration levels, but so far researchers have been able to identify heat conditions that negatively affect cognitive performance. 

How does cold impact cognition?

During the winter months, temperatures may drop to significant lows. Exposure to extreme cold temperatures is experienced by military, farming and fishing industry workers, emergency disaster workers, and winter athletes. Cold exposure may cause someone to become distracted by the sensation of being cold, which in turn can disrupt cognitive resources from being directed to other tasks. Cold exposure induces changes in catecholamine levels, which are needed for complex cognitive processes such as dual tasking and working memory. In other research, researchers have found that people exposed to cold temperatures perform poorly on assessments of complex cognitive tasks, while performance of simple cognitive tasks remains intact. Differences in cold exposure techniques during research studies have led to variable results, but overall the research regarding the effects of cold exposure on cognition have demonstrated a negative correlation.

How do hypoxic conditions impact cognition?

Hypoxia can occur at high altitudes as a reduction of alveolar partial oxygen pressure occurs. Because oxygen is needed for organ functioning, depletion of oxygen can cause cognitive impairment. In regards to altitude, researchers have found negative correlations between high altitudes and cognitive performance. For example, researchers have tested participants on reaction time tasks and found that participants who performed these tasks after having been exposed to high altitude conditions had slower reaction time responses than did participants who remained at sea level. High altitude conditions are experienced by mountain climbers, who may encounter other risky environmental conditions. While climbing may be a thrilling hobby, researchers have found that climbers who have been exposed to high altitudes may have learning deficits that may last up to 2 weeks upon returning to sea level.

Conclusion 

Oftentimes, we do not think about how our environment may impact our cognitive functioning. Exposure to extreme temperatures or altitudes during work or leisure activities may have negative effects on our cognitive abilities. It is important to consider exposure to extreme environmental conditions, and ask your client about their potential exposure to these conditions as they may provide insight into the cognitive areas your client may be struggling with.  

Source: Taylor, L., Watkins, S. L., Marshall, H., Dascombe, B. J., & Foster, J. (2016). The impact of different environmental conditions on cognitive function: a focused review. Frontiers in physiology, 6, 372.
Christine Campbell

Christine is HappyNeuron Pro’s Marketing Specialist. People with intellectual disabilities have a special place in her heart. Growing up with a sibling with an autism diagnosis and intellectual disability influenced the way she views life. She is passionate about educating people about health and sharing cognitive tips.

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