The Impact of Environmental Stress on Cognitive Performance: A Systematic Review

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    68 Citations (Scopus)


    Objective: In this review, we detail the impact of environmental stress on cognitive and military task performance and highlight any individual characteristics or interventions which may mitigate any negative effect. Background: Military personnel are often deployed in regions markedly different from their own, experiencing hot days, cold nights, and trips both above and below sea level. In spite of these stressors, high-level cognitive and operational performance must be maintained. Method: A systematic review of the electronic databases Medline (PubMed), EMBASE (Scopus), PsycINFO, and Web of Science was conducted from inception up to September 2018. Eligibility criteria included a healthy human cohort, an outcome of cognition or military task performance and assessment of an environmental condition. Results: The search returned 113,850 records, of which 124 were included in the systematic review. Thirty-one studies examined the impact of heat stress on cognition; 20 of cold stress; 59 of altitude exposure; and 18 of being below sea level. Conclusion: The severity and duration of exposure to the environmental stressor affects the degree to which cognitive performance can be impaired, as does the complexity of the cognitive task and the skill or familiarity of the individual performing the task. Application: Strategies to improve cognitive performance in extreme environmental conditions should focus on reducing the magnitude of the physiological and perceptual disturbance caused by the stressor. Strategies may include acclimatization and habituation, being well skilled on the task, and reducing sensations of thermal stress with approaches such as head and neck cooling.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1205-1246
    Number of pages42
    JournalHuman Factors
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


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