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26 Oct, 2014 12:25

Sex, chocolate… new language? Same pleasure for human brain, scientists say

Sex, chocolate… new language? Same pleasure for human brain, scientists say

Learning new words stimulates the same brain center as such long-proven means of deriving pleasure, as having sex, gambling or eating chocolate, a new study says.

A team of Spanish and German researchers at Barcelona's Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute and Otto von Guericke University has found that successful learning of the meanings of new words activates a core reward center in the adult brain. They have recently published their findings in the Current Biology journal.

The ventral striatum is a part of the brain activated by actions that trigger positive emotions, should it be sugary food, sex or drugs. Traditionally, the process of learning of a new language was associated with a boost in the number of connections between neurons, but it wasn’t proven that emotions are also involved.

"The purpose of the study was to find out to what extent learning a language could activate these pleasure-and-reward circuits," study author Antoni Rodríguez Fornells told La Vanguardia, Catalan daily newspaper.

Learning new words stimulates the same part of the brain as gambling (Image from the study ‘The role of reward in word learning and its implications for language acquisition’)

Additionally, the scientists managed to find the correspondence between the level of myelin index, which measures brain’s structure integrity, and the number of words learnt. The experiment participants with higher level of myelin were able to learn more new words.

“From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop,” the lead author said.

To get these results, the scientists gathered 36 adults and conducted two magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. They showed that both language-based and gambling-like tests activated the same parts of the brain.

The researchers claim the findings could help explain the drive for the development of human languages, as well as individual motivation in studying of foreign languages.

“We suggest that this strong functional and anatomical coupling between neocortical language regions and the subcortical reward system provided a crucial advantage in humans that eventually enabled our lineage to successfully acquire linguistic skills,” the authors wrote.

What’s more, the study could also promote new treatments for people with disorders connected with language learning.