We are much more sensitive to temperature than we ever thought: a Eurac Research study reveals

10 January 24

We are much more sensitive to temperature than we ever thought: a Eurac Research study reveals

A study conducted in the terraXcube, Eurac Research’s extreme environment simulator, shows that the threshold for human perception of temperature changes is less than one degree centigrade.

Laura Battistel, a PhD student in cognitive and brain sciences at Eurac Research, conducts experiments on human perception using the Small Cube, one of three environmental simulation areas the terraXcube is divided into. Her study, a collaboration between terraXcube and CIMeC (Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento), shows that, on average, humans are able to perceive environmental temperature differences of 0.92 degrees Celsius. This is the first study in which environmental temperature perception has been evaluated. Previous studies had only ever focused on sensitivity to temperature changes in specific parts of the body. The discovery is part of a line of research on the impact of the environment on our perception and could have implications in the field of heating, ventilation and air conditioning in buildings. The results of Battistel’s experiments have just been published in the Scientific Reports journal.

The experiment conducted by Laura Battistel involved the use of four temperature-controlled climate chambers, ranging from 23 to 25 degrees Celsius. Twenty-six participants were involved: 13 men and 13 women. Volunteers had to make comparisons between pairs of chambers, moving from one chamber to another, and then say which was warmer and which was colder. Each person made 120 comparisons between pairs of rooms, resulting in a total of 3120 comparisons. Analysis of the data revealed an average threshold for perception of temperature differences of 0.92 degrees Celsius. Moreover, all the participants showed very similar temperature sensitivity. “This indicates that this may be an inherent characteristic of our species," Battistel says. “We are all endowed with a pronounced sensitivity to environmental temperature, although we are not aware of it.”

The idea of studying human sensory capabilities using the terraXcube was the brainchild of Massimiliano Zampini, a full professor at CIMeC, University of Trento. The goal of this research is to find out what we can perceive about the environment around us. Only in this way, can we deepen our knowledge of how the environment influences the way we think and act. In this sense, the study fits into the line of research on “Grounded Cognition,” the scientific theory according to which the cognition we have of our surroundings is inseparably linked to our sensory perception of the world itself. In other words, according to this theory, when we reflect, try to recall a lived experience or approach our surroundings, our senses are activated and they influence our thinking.

The results of the study have potential implications for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning sector in buildings. “From the perspective of energy sustainability, being able to determine a temperature range in which the individual maintains their state of comfort while reducing the building’s energy load would benefit us and the planet,” explains Riccardo Parin, supervisor of Battistel’s work. “In our study, however, we do not focus on participants’ thermal comfort. In fact, we are currently more interested in finding out how our perception changes at temperatures higher or lower than those generally considered comfortable. And this is what we will be investigating in future experiments”, Parin concludes.

“Our infrastructure is made available for research in a wide variety of fields. From clothing to emergency medicine in the mountains, from the automotive industry to climate change,” says Christian Steurer, director of terraXcube. “The idea of conducting research on the human psyche inside our climate chambers intrigued me right from the start. Now the project is starting to bear fruit. I am looking forward to the next developments.”

The results of Battistel’s study have been published in the Scientific Reports journal and are available online:

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In this short video, Laura Battistel, a PhD student at Eurac Research and CIMeC, talks about her research project on environmental temperature perception.


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