Mind & Body

An Hour in a Conference Room Produces Enough CO2 to Impair Your Mind

Have you ever been in a meeting where you just can't stay focused on anything that's being said? You try like crazy to snap out of your daydreaming, but all you come back to is your boss jabbering on about who-knows-what, so you can't help but let your mind wander again. As it turns out, you may not have yourself to blame for your short attention span.

A Meeting of the Minds

See, according to a 2016 study from the international environmental design firm Gensler, after just one hour of meeting with others in a conference room, the level of carbon dioxide reaches 1,400 parts per million, or ppm. The human brain evolved in an atmosphere around 200 to 300 ppm of CO2, but nowadays, we're regularly dealing with outdoor levels of 400 ppm or more. That's bad for the environment, but it's also bad for your brain.

As a 2015 Harvard study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found, as CO2 concentrations rise, cognitive abilities fall. At a level of 945 ppm, brain functions decrease by 15 percent. At the 1,400 ppm level that the Gensler study found, the air becomes so polluted that cognitive performance can be stunted by as much as 50 percent.

What exactly did the study mean by "cognitive abilities"? They tested people over nine different domains and found that CO2 exposure at those levels can especially affect the areas of strategizing, focus, decisionmaking, and the capacity to understand new information. Or just about all of the reasons you're in a meeting in the first place.

Oh, and here's the kicker: That Gensler study measured the air quality when just three people were in the conference room. Three! So, you can expect the air to be even more polluted when more people are present in the room.

Clearing Your Head

So what can be done about this nasty, brain-debilitating air quality? Luckily, the Gensler study found those results as part of a larger, three-year project studying air quality. That specific result was found when measuring a traditional conference room versus an identical one with an added "green wall." A green wall is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; it's a literal wall that is basically full of live greenery from floor to ceiling. In the green conference room, the CO2 level stayed below 1,200 ppm after two whole hours. That's not a huge fix, but it's not nothing.

But, assuming your company isn't going to shell out the cash to convert your conference room into a Rainforest Café, would a few well-placed plants make a difference? Unfortunately, as this piece at The Atlantic explains, house plants do little to nothing to improve air quality. So you're left with the traditional options: crack a window if it's warm enough outside, use an electric fan if it's not. If you don't, you'll be back to mindlessly nodding your way through those long company meetings and just hoping that you never get called on.

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For more ways to make your office better, check out "The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace" by Ron Friedman, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker April 10, 2019

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