Mental and Cognitive Performance in the Cold

Depending where you live, winter months may be filled with snow, ice, and sleet. With low temperatures and less daylight, the winter months can impact how we feel and how we think. What is less understood is how cold weather specifically affects mental and cognitive performance. In this blog post, we discuss how the cold impacts mental and cognitive performance.

How is mental and cognitive performance impacted by the cold?

Studies done assessing the effect of cold on mental and cognitive performance have been done by exposing participants to different degrees of cold and using different mediums (air versus water exposure). In general, researchers have found that when people are exposed to the cold, people make more errors and have longer response times when performing different cognitive tests that assess reasoning, memory, intelligence, and vigilance. If someone is repeatedly exposed to cold temperatures, research has shown that they will exhibit poor performance on complex cognitive tasks while performance ability on simple tasks remains intact. Due to the variability in how cold exposure is delivered, the duration of time people are exposed to the cold, and what tasks they do to assess cognitive performance, results have been inconsistent. 

While there is a lot of research on how the cold impacts cognition, there is little research as to how cold temperatures affect emotion. Studies in people living in Antarctic research stations have shown that long term cold weather exposure leads to increased depression and decreased cognitive functioning, particularly during the winter. Depression can cause someone to feel angry, irritable, tired, and to have difficulty concentrating. More research is needed to better understand the mechanisms underlying psychological changes in regards to temperature exposure, but current research suggests that long term exposure to the cold may cause someone to experience depression or depression-like symptoms.

How can you ensure that your mental and cognitive performance are not impacted by the cold?

As the winter months approach, you may be wondering how you can avoid feeling cognitively and emotionally “down”. During the cold months, it is important to wear warm clothing, especially when going outside. For your home or office, keep your inside environment at a comfortable temperature. In the kitchen, make use of a crockpot and try making different soups and stews to sip on to raise your internal body temperature. Exercising regularly may also help keep you warm by helping you increase blood flow throughout your body. Lastly, taking warm showers or baths can also help you keep warm, especially after coming in from the cold.

Palinkas, L. A. (2001). Mental and cognitive performance in the cold. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 60(3), 430-439.
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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