How Languages Affect the Brain’s Pleasure Receptors

Do you have an addictive personality?  Do you tend to go overboard with so-called “vice” activities like drinking, gambling, and sex?  Recent studies are showing that you can take your cravings for instant gratification and put them to a more wholesome use; according to a team of Spanish and German scientists, the act of learning a language—specifically learning new vocabulary words and using them in context—lights up the same pleasure receptors of our brain as sex and drugs do.

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While there have always been many different motivators for learning a new language, linguists have often suggested that the main one may be more primal than humanistic.  Scientists at the Barcelona Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute decided to do a controlled experiment to find out the biology behind the joy you feel when using newly learned words in a real-life situation.  They took 36 adults and put them through a series of mental exercises while receiving an fMRI scan.  Each subject participated in a round of gambling simulations, and then learned a group of new words via a communicative teaching method.

As the team had hypothesized, the act of winning money (even simulated money) and the act of learning new vocabulary affected the same area of the brain, the ventral striatum, which is typically considered the reward center.  While language is traditionally known to stimulate the cortical region of the brain, the ventral striatum is a more basic area of our consciousness, suggesting that language-learning can be a more compulsive activity than we previously realized.

Of course, not everybody learns new words with the same ease—further studies have shown that the more neural connectors between the cortical area of the brain and the ventral striatum, the faster and more efficiently someone will pick up new vocabulary.  So your knack at languages may, in fact, be biologically based.  It is suspected that some people have just evolved to have a better connection between those two areas of the brain, but it can also be developed over the course of a lifetime.

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This connection also suggests that learning a second language can be a highly emotional process.  Studies are in the works to link language-learning with the brain’s dopamine receptors, and it has long been evident that people who are the most adept at learning languages—the ones who know fourteen languages and describe a great attachment, almost a compulsion, to their linguistic pursuits—are the ones who get most pleasure out of it.

As with gambling, drug-taking, and having sex, language-learning can be a self-perpetuating addiction, but one that brings with it more long-term benefits and doesn’t make you a bad example to any small children in the vicinity.  So if you want the thrills of the rock and roll lifestyle, but without the physiological wear and tear, why not look into learning a new language?  Send us an inquiry to see what your options are for language courses in your area, or take one of our free online language level tests to see which language you find most rewarding.

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