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Expanding your vocabulary and learning the meaning of new words can be as pleasurable as activities such sex, gambling, drugs and eating, according to a new study by an international team of scientists.

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The team, which is included Spanish and German scientists, revealed that people who expand their vocabulary and learn new words activate a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum, which can also spark up during pleasurable activities such as sex.

The added bonus is that human language is a hugely important skill in our evolution, because it gives us the ability to spread knowledge and share it with others.

Speaking on languages, Justine Alford wrote on IFL Science:

“What motivates us to acquire a new language from a very early age has been a mystery. Some hypothesized that language-learning mechanisms may have been linked to reward circuits in the brain, reinforcing the drive to learn new words. Until now, however, experimental evidence in support of this has been lacking.”

The results of the study were published by the team at Barcelona’s Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute and Otto von Guericke University in the Current Biology journal.

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The scientists observed the brain activity of 36 adults using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The 36 participants were asked to take part in two different activities: gambling simulations and language-learning experiments, where they were told the meaning of new words.

During tests, subjects participated in gambling simulations (in blue) and language-based tests (in yellow). Scans showed that both activities stimulated the same parts of the brain.

During tests, subjects participated in gambling simulations (in blue) and language-based tests (in yellow). Scans showed that both activities stimulated the same parts of the brain.

The lead author, Antoni Rodríguez Fornells, a biologist from the University of Barcelona, told the Catalan daily newspaper La Vanguardia:

“The aim of the study was to find out to what extent learning a language could activate these pleasure and reward circuits. From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop.”

It’s known that language stimulates the cortical language region of the brain. After keeping an eye on both groups tested, the scientists found that both activities activated the same part of the brain: the pleasure-associated region which is known as the ventral striatum.

Pablo Ripollés, a PhD student at Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute explained it further to the Daily Mail Online:

“The main objective of the study was to know to what extent language learning activates subcortical reward and motivational systems. The fact that language could be favoured by this type of circuitries is an interesting hypothesis from an evolutionary point of view.”

Furthermore, the researchers noticed that the synchronization between the cortical language regions and the ventral striatum was increased during the word learning activities. Similarly, the study revealed that people who had more neural connections between the language regions of the brain and the ventral striatum were able to learn more words than their peers. The ability to remember what you’ve learned will increase when the new-learning words are associated with pleasure.

Fornells also reportedly said:

“The study questions whether language only comes from cortical evolution or structured mechanisms and suggests that emotions may influence language acquisition processes.”

The researchers said that the results could give an explanation to the development process of human languages; as well as help to motivate those who have problems in studying foreign languages.


(1) IFL Science

(2) Daily Mail Online

(3) Science Alert

(4) University of Barcelona

(5) Photo Credit: Barcelona’s Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute

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