A Heady Whiff Of Conference Room Air

It’s long been a standing joke that big office meetings — especially those that feature lengthy PowerPoint presentations — do nothing but make everyone in attendance dumber.  Now it looks like (gulp!) there’s some scientific evidence that the jest just might just have more than a kernel of truth to it.

conf-room-cm-2013-12-12_172632Conference room meetings involve two factors that don’t necessarily go well together:  living human beings, and closed spaces.   The human beings breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, and the closed spaces prevent the air in the conference room from circulating.  Indeed, modern buildings are a lot more insulated and better at keeping outdoor air outside, and indoor air inside.  That means that, if you’re in a conference room meeting with lots of other people, as time goes on the carbon dioxide generated by the breathing process will accumulate and the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air will increase.

Studies have shown that breathing air with carbon dioxide that are too high — much higher than you could expect to find at even the longest, most deadly office meeting — can have clear negative effects on the brain.  The impact includes stifling interaction between different regions of the brain, reduced neuronal activity, and dilated blood vessels in the brain.  Now, scientists are starting to look at the effects of exposure to air with lower carbon dioxide concentrations, like what you might find in a closed door meeting in a conference room, and what they’re finding indicates that the old joke just might mirror reality.  The studies are showing that, as the carbon dioxide levels in indoor air increase, human performance on tests designed to measure higher end intellectual acuity qualities like strategy and initiative declined.

So what can you do, other than avoiding large-scale meetings?  One answer is to increase the ventilation rate in modern buildings, but that’s not something that most of us can readily control.  Other options are to open a window — if you’re in one of the incredibly rare conference rooms that actually has one — or even a door.  Keeping all-hands meetings as short as possible will help, too.  And there’s always the option we used to urge teachers to adopt on a beautiful spring day — have class outside.

The bottom line is that people who work in office buildings, as many of us do, need to be sensitive to getting outside where the tools of nature — trees, plants and cool breezes — have had a chance to scrub the air and return carbon dioxide levels to normal.  It turns out that getting out of closed cubicles and into the fresh air outside isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the brain, too.