Most of our posts center on nutrition and other commonly referenced mediators of brain function like sleep and exercise. However, today we will cover three under-appreciated variables that also have a marked impact on your noggin. These are dynamics you likely don’t think about regularly, but can have hugely positive cognitive implications if addressed properly.
1. Temperature & Light
You may not realize it, but environment is a huge determinant of productivity. Let’s start with temperature. According to multiple studies, the optimal work environment is between 70 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. One study found that employees made 44% more mistakes in a colder office (68 degrees). The issue with cold temperatures appears to be twofold – distraction, and a diversion of energy from the brain towards warming the body.
Note: Let’s not forget, though, that intermittent cold exposure can have huge benefits.
A second modulator of focus and well-being is light. The brain has a clear preference for natural versus artificial light, and implications of which one you’re exposed to are stark. One recent study found that people exposed to daylight were more alert through the evening than their peers. Another study found workers with exposure to windows slept 46 more minutes per night and reported less physical issues. So don’t forget to soak up those rays!
Researchers have debated for decades over whether or not certain music can enhance thinking. The answer appears to be an unsatisfying one: it depends. Let’s say you work in a moderately noisy office in which you begrudgingly overhear conversations, people walking, etc. A University of Illinois study found that people in this context raised their output by 6.3% when listening to music while working. Wordless tunes with sounds of nature appear to be most effective here.
Buuuttt, if your work setting is more tranquil, the opposite may be true. Another study found that 56 employees working on basic computer tasks were more productive without music. Thus, you really have to make a judgment call – is your workplace noisy enough where the right kind of music can “drown out” the cacophony? If yes, start jamming. If no, silence may be the way to go.
In many ways, smell is the strongest sense we have. The olfactory bulbs at the end of our nasal cavities are part of the limic system and plug directly into the brain’s areas responsible for emotion processing and learning. This is why scents so often trigger memories. Scent can also have powerful effects on mood and concentration.
Here are a few scents to consider keeping on-hand, and their purported effects:
- Lemon: A Japanese study found that lemon scent improved workers’ typing accuracy, resulting in 54% fewer errors. An Ohio State study found that people’s levels of norepinephrine – a brain chemical involved in executive function – boosted when they smelled lemon.
- Jasmine: Numerous studies have linked jasmine to a sensation of being simultaneously sharp and serene. Plus, research shows that inhaling jasmine triggers feel-good beta waves in the brain and can improve reaction time.
- Rosemary: This is the memory scent. According to research by Dr. Mark Moss, head of the department of psychology at Northumbria University, inhaling rosemary can increase memory capacity by 10% or higher.
- Peppermint: Several studies have shown peppermint to reduce fatigue and frustration, and to increase focus and clarity. It’s even been shown to improve athletic performance!
Exposure to these scents can be achieved in any number of ways, depending on preference and your environment. For instance, burning a naturally-scented jasmine candle works great in your living room, but you'd be better off sipping jasmine tea in an office setting. For a universally applicable option, try rubbing essential oils into your palms.