The Brain

Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs

October 29, 2014 | by Justine Alford

Photo credit: Craig Sunter, "Book Worm," via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

Human language is a unique phenomenon that separates us from other members of the animal kingdom. The emergence of language was a hugely important step in our evolution because it allowed humans to cooperate and share knowledge more easily. But 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.

For this latest study, which has been published in Current Biology, researchers from Spain and Germany looked at the brain activity of 36 adult participants using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Scans were taken while the participants were performing two different activities: learning the meaning of new words from context in a sentence, and a gambling task.

During both word learning and gambling, participants exhibited activity in the ventral striatum, which is a core area involved in reward and motivation. This same region is activated during a wide range of pleasurable activities, such as eating great food, having sex and taking drugs. During word learning activities, synchronization between the cortical language regions and the ventral striatum was also increased. Furthermore, those with better connections between these two circuits were found to be able to learn more words than those with weaker links.

Taken together, these results suggest that the union of these two brain circuits bestowed humans with an important advantage that ultimately resulted in the emergence of linguistic skills. “From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop,” lead author Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells told La Vanguardia. The findings, he says, call into question whether language is solely product of the evolution of the brain cortex, and could even suggest that emotions may influence the process of language acquisition.

[Via Current Biology, MIC, University of Barcelona]

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