An international team of scientists has discovered that learning the meaning of new words can stimulate the same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating.
This is awesome news for all the word lovers out there, but the breakthrough will also help scientists understand how humans evolved to develop language.
"The aim of the study was to find out to what extent learning a language could activate these pleasure and reward circuits," lead author Antoni Rodríguez Fornells, a biologist from the University of Barcelona, told Spanish paper La Vanguardia, as Mic reports.
"From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop."
As part of the study, 36 participants were asked to take part in both gambling simulations and language-learning trials, where they were taught new words.
Researchers monitored the brain activity of both groups using magnetic resonance imaging while they did this. Usually language stimulates the cortical language region of the brain, but the study found that during both activities a pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum was also stimulated.
The ventral striatum has previously been known to be activated by a wide range of stimuli, including food, sex, drugs and gambling. Interestingly, this reward circuit is believed to have evolved much earlier than the cortical language part of the brain, so it could provide some insight into how humans learnt language.
"The study questions whether language only comes from cortical evolution or structured mechanisms and suggests that emotions may influence language acquisition processes,” said Fornells in a press release.
The research also showed 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, suggesting that when new words are associated with pleasure, we’re able to better remember them.
Previous research had already showed that learning and pleasure was linked, but this study is the first to suggest that it may be one of the factors that helped us to evolve language. If nothing else, we love the fact that the research reinforces our love for crosswords, reading and scrabble.
The research is published in Current Biology.