Wearing masks for longer time can even hamper cognitive performance

A man wearing a face mask amid COVID-19 pandemic in Srinagar. [Representational Picture]
A man wearing a face mask amid COVID-19 pandemic in Srinagar. [Representational Picture]Mubashir Khan/GK File

Sydney: Wearing a face mask can temporarily disrupt decision-making in some situations, hampering cognitive performance in certain sports, and professions like language interpreters, performers, waiters and teachers, a new study has revealed.

The University of Queensland (UQ) research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed almost three million chess moves played by more than 8,000 people in 18 countries before and during the pandemic.

It found wearing a mask substantially reduced the average quality of player decisions.

"The decrease in performance was due to the annoyance caused by the masks rather than a physiological mechanism, but people adapted to the distraction over time," said Dr David Smerdon from UQ's School of Economics.

The data showed masks were more likely to decrease performance in situations where there was a demanding mental task with a high working memory load.

"This is something to keep in mind for occupations in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as other professions that demand a high level of working memory such as language interpreters, performers, waiters and teachers," Smerdon added.

Dr Smerdon, an Australian chess Grandmaster, said while mask mandates had helped to curb the spread of Covid-19, almost nothing was known about their impact on cognitive performance.

"At the moment there are no large studies on the impact of mask wearing on the general population," he said.

The study found that while mask wearing had a negative impact on chess performance, the effect subsided after four to six hours of playing.

"The results suggest that the effect of masks may depend on the type of task, the duration of the task and working memory load," he added.

Understanding the impact of mask wearing on decision-making could help individuals and organisations better evaluate when and how to use them.

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