It’s no secret that many people experience great pleasure when they have sex. The brain lights up and dopamine levels to prompt feelings of significant pleasure until climax. Would you believe it if someone told you that learning just one new vocabulary word will activate the same reward circuitry as sex and gambling? Probably not, however new research indicates that this is exactly what occurs each time you acquire new vocabulary.
The ability of humans to verbally communicate is a small part of what makes us more advanced than other animals. The development of human language is largely considered a milestone in the process of evolution due to the fact that it allowed for a more efficient way to exchange information. Whether it is via talking, writing, or sign language, human’s are able to effectively communicate.
Methods such as virtual telepathy may even improve our communication efficiency in future generations. Although we know communication is a very efficient way to exchange knowledge, scientists are still studying the underlying mechanisms of language acquisition, particularly the motivation behind learning a new language at a young age.
Theory: Learning new words stimulates brain’s reward centers
Some scientists have speculated that mechanisms by which humans learn a new language were associated with reward centers in the brain. If going by this theory, humans would essentially experience “pleasure” every time they learned a new word. This pleasure response would then lead them to further develop their vocabulary (as often occurs as we age). However, this speculation has remained a “theory” due to lack of verified scientific evidence.
Brain Activity Comparison: Learning vocabulary (MRI) vs. Gambling (MRI)
The study was conducted by researchers at Otto von Guericke University (in Germany) and Barcelona’s Bellvitage Biomedical Research Institute. Researchers collaborated in conducting the study as well as analyzing results by pooling together their data. The primary objective of this particular study was to determine the extent of which learning language activates “subcortical reward and motivational systems.”
Study: To investigate the theory that “learning new words could stimulate reward centers,” researchers devised a study that utilized fMRI brain scans to analyze cortical activation when performing two distinct activities: learning the meaning of words and gambling. Researchers gathered 36 adult participants to partake in the study.
Results: Results of the brain scans indicated that regardless of whether the task was learning new words or gambling, the 36 participants exhibited increased activity in the “ventral striatum” region. This is an area that is responsible for influencing reward and motivation and is generally activated during a variety of pleasure-inducing activities including: eating food, having sex, and taking drugs.
Myelin Density, Ventral Striatum, and Language Centers
During the word-learning task, researchers noted brain synchronization between the ventral striatum and the cortical language regions. Results showed that myelin concentrations in the brain influenced how many words a person learned during the experiment.
- Lower myelin density: Individuals with lower concentrations of myelin in the brain learned less words compared to those with greater concentrations.
- Higher myelin density: Increased myelin density allowed for the language areas to be better connected with the reward center, thus lead to increased vocabulary.
The connection between the ventral striatum and the language areas is believed to be an evolutionary development among humans. The study’s lead author Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells was quoted as saying, “From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop.” Think about it, if you experience pleasure each time you learn a new word, you’re inherently more likely to continue that process.
Some speculate that this may provide explanation as to why individuals who grow older still often enjoy learning new words and methods of communication. So what comes first: the advanced vocabulary or the increased myelin density in these regions? Or do both occur simultaneously?
This would make for an interesting future study. Based on the findings, the possibility of neuroplasticity cannot be ruled out as it may elicit myelin density changes in these particular regions. In other words, those who consciously attempt to acquire new vocabulary on a consistent basis may strengthen the circuitry between these regions.
Important takeaways from this study…
There are several takeaways from this particular study. One such takeaway is that the results could be beneficial for the development of new drugs to aid in language acquisition. Additionally the other major takeaway is that learning new vocabulary is likely to be naturally pleasurable for most humans.
- Considering neuroplasticity: This brings into question whether constantly learning new words would actually increase the connectivity between the language and reward centers. Could someone who doesn’t like learning new vocabulary be trained to actually enjoy the process? Researchers could run a future study among individuals with poor ability to learn new words and assign them tasks to learn new words over a period of time. They could take brain scans pre-learning and post-learning to observe any specific changes as a result of neuroplasticity.
- Drug development potential: As mentioned by researchers, they may be able to use these drugs to help pharmaceutical and/or biotech companies come up with ways to strengthen the myelin concentration between the language centers and the reward centers of the brain. Should such a drug get developed, it may significantly help those with difficulties learning vocabulary and/or a language. Imagine if there was a drug that permanently increased this density? Even individuals without language deficiencies may get nootropic benefit.
- Further research warranted: Although this was a small-scale study, the results were relatively unanimous. The researchers didn’t really need a large sample size to determine what was happening within the brain because the findings were universal. However, further research is still warranted to verify these findings as well as analyze other potential motivational theories of language acquisition.
- Learning new vocabulary is pleasurable: As indicated by the study, humans experience a degree of pleasure from learning new words. In order to feel the pleasure, it seems as though we need to learn proper context for using the word and be able to incorporate it in our vocabulary. Although this takes some degree of effort, from an evolutionary perspective, it is relatively enjoyable.