Okay, so this post is more about being a student than it is about the study of pathology. Bear with me: there is important information here!

Of the two hormones produced by the posterior pituitary (oxytocin and antidiuretic hormone), the more interesting by far is oxytocin. Called the “cuddle hormone,” it has been shown to mediate trust, connection, monogamy, and basically any other good emotion that occurs in relationship with others. On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article entitled “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much” which suggests that oxytocin has another very important effect that may have implications for students in classrooms.

The article talks at length about research showing how small, physical interactions (a touch on the arm, a high-five, etc.) have a positive effect on both the toucher and the touchee. Some of the positive effects are what you’d expect: small touches have been shown to ease pain, soothe depression, deepen a relationship. But here’s something interesting: small touches can also improve performance! A soon-to-be-published study of professional basketball players came to this startling conclusion:

“Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.”

It probably has to do with – you guessed it – oxytocin. The article states: “If a high five or an equivalent can in fact enhance performance, on the field or in the office, that may be because it reduces stress. A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

How could oxytocin (a “relationship” hormone) have anything to do with personal performance? The article offers an interesting suggestion:

“In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as ‘I’ll share the load.'”

So: let’s see more high-fives, more touches on the arm, more secret handshakes. It can’t hurt – especially around exam time!

Image credit: Carina Ice (http://www.flickr.com/photos/carinaice/4089444469/), under cc license