Even Flow: Is Stale Air in Conference Rooms Dulling Our Brains?

June 3, 2019

[chris ryan]
[chris ryan]

Conference rooms might be bad places to make decisions, research suggests.

As The New York Times reported May 7, small rooms can accumulate heat, carbon dioxide from our breath and toxins from furniture, office supplies and carpet. Inhaling carbon dioxide in small spaces can dilate blood vessels in the brain, reducing neuron activity and decreasing communication between regions of the brain, biomedical researchers have found.

In the last 50 years, buildings in the United States have become better sealed, helping reduce energy used in heating and cooling — but also making it easier for gasses released by humans and furnishings to build up inside.

About 10 years ago, engineers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California found that test-takers performed worse in rooms with higher carbon dioxide levels.

In 2016, another team of researchers similarly found that “dramatic impacts on decision-making performance” resulted from minor adjustments to indoor air quality, said Joseph Allen, a public health professor at Harvard who led the study. Other research has not found such correlations between indoor air quality and cognition, suggesting that stress levels may affect decision-making.

But variations in the relationship between cognitive performance and ventilation suggest that the typically recommended minimum air flow for conference rooms — 6 cubic feet per minute per person — might not be optimal, Allen said.

When possible, open a door or window during meetings. Fresh air could inspire clearer cognition and better decisions. — Greg Beaubien


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