The heat is making us stupid

It was almost the middle of September and as the sun hang in the midday sky Central London was littered with throngs of people enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Almost two dozen miles away, at Gravesend, just outside London, temperatures were being recorded that were setting a record last breached 105 years earlier

Meanwhile, 5,217 miles away, across the Atlantic, the city of Las Vegas was enjoying record-breaking temperatures along with the rest of the west coast of the continental United States. 

While human beings are capable of a robust biological adaptability response when encountering environmental stressors that response is subject to physical as well as cultural constraints and, usually, requires some time to take effect.

We are all complex biomechanical units subject to the laws of physics and the threats and opportunities immediately afforded to us by our physical environment. So it is reasonable to question just how well we function at a physical and cognitive level when we encounter unseasonable heat in the environment we live in. 

Excess Heat Does Make Us Stupid

As it turns out a new study carried out in the U.S. on young adults living in non-air-conditioned environments highlighted a reduction in higher cognitive functions as a result of the excess heat load they experienced. 

A Harvard University study found that physics presents us with an inescapable reality first noted by physicist James Joule in 1843: the moment we transfer electricity along a circuit we automatically increase the temperature of the circuit itself and its immediate surroundings. When this takes place inside the brain, the heat generated by neuronal activity, is dissipated through biological processes which re-establish the stability (homeostasis) required for living systems to survive. But a rise in external temperature that happens too suddenly and too fast, challenges that process. 

A 2022 study titled “Thermal Effect On Neurons During Stimulation Of The Brain” highlights the fact that even a temperature rise of less than one degree Centigrade, in the brain, significantly affects neuronal activity, with many of the brain’s higher executive functions, going quiet until normal operating temperature is restored. In short, in high heat, the smart parts of the brain shut down. 

Was 2016 A ‘Stupid’ Year? 

Beyond the unseasonably hot weather, 2016 was marked around the globe with increased levels of unrest. In the U.S. the 2016 election delivered Trump to the White House while in the United Kingdom a referendum delivered Brexit and marked the beginning of the diminishing of Britain’s global outreach and influence. 

It would be disingenuous to suggest that either of these uniquely unexpected and initially considered unlikely, events is just down to just hot weather. That would surely takes us squarely in the fictional Body Heat territory, where a central aspect of the 1984 film suggests that the untoward behavior of the protagonists is abetted if not caused by unseasonably hot weather. Or, even better, Spike Lee’s 1989 hit, Do The Right Thing where hot weather is the prime mover of violent events. Surely we’re not quite as susceptible to hot weather as that. Or, are we? 

"It's the heat..."



"It's too hot!"


Scientists Link Aggression To Hotter Weather

One of the basic themes of Intentional: Hot to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully is that the environment we operate in shapes our emotion, guides our thinking and determines our actions through constant stimuli we’re barely aware of. 

In 2007, The Guardian carried news of a study on suicides in the United Kingdom that directly linked their incidence to the experienced rise in summer temperatures. A more recent article published in the medical journal, The Lancet, explains how studies reveal the link between increased aggression and self-harm through two distinct theories: “The … temperature-aggression theory, explains that hot weather induces interpersonal violence by increasing discomfort, frustration, impulsivity, and aggression.” And the “…routine activity theory, which suggests that change in ambient temperature can alter people's routine activities (eg, outdoor events and social contacts) and increase interpersonal conflicts or create suitable crime environments.”

The first accounts for behavioral changes when the weather gets uncomfortably hot and the second explains aberrations in behavior when the weather just warms up, well within the comfortable zone, in traditionally colder climes. 

Weather Affects Our Moods, Thoughts And Actions

We’ve all had an older relative complaining of aches and pains in their joints every time the weather got colder. Better now known as “Cold weather joint pain” the syndrome is the direct result of the effect of changes of atmospheric pressure on the tissues of the body which make joints swell and grow stiff. A study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine highlighted how pain from inflammatory arthritis can be relieved by relocating patients to a warmer climate. A further study linked pain felt from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis to drops in ambient temperature and bad weather. 

So, it is all types of weather that affect our mood, perception and cognition. And hot weather, in particular, makes a little less bright by shutting down the cognitively intensive (and therefore heat-producing) parts of the brain we use for deeper reasoning, analysis and decision making. 

All of this would be just so much great-to-know but not-very-useful stuff were it not for the fact that our time places us at the very beginning of a worsening climate crisis exacerbated by the El Nino weather effect.

Hotter temperatures and unstable weather patterns are our reality. This affects everything. 

  • Decision making at a personal and collective level is going to become harder by default. We will require a more level, transparent and intentional communal approach to overcome the tendency for polarization and the trend for aggression that we see starting out, today.
  • Marketing and sales outreach messages will need to take into account the new emotional space their audience is likely to find itself in and change tone and content accordingly.
  • Skilled communicators will be required to help create a better sense of the new shared reality we all find ourselves in so as to help shape expectations and guide perception.
  • Politicians who fail to understand the difference in mood and judgement in their audience will risk losing control of situations they barely realize their words and actions can start. 

Embodied cognition is a real thing for us. We can’t function without our body. The brain and body are one. The environment we live in determines much of the reality we process. But, because we’re emotional machines that think, we can use our ability to think to mediate the impact the environment has on us through the way we feel. 

Personal survival strategies are, in essence, modern behavioral guidelines. Keeping ourselves cool or warm, well-hydrated and situationally aware are primary steps to better emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is what makes us truly human. And that is so much easier to determine and more practical to achieve than administering the gom jabbar, don’t you think?   


Go Deeper: 

Intentional book by David Amerland The Sniper Mind by David Amerland
Take Control Of Your Actions.    Make Better Decisions.