Can adding new words to your vocabulary help you get off? According to a recent study in Current Biology, learning the meaning of new words activates the same region of the brain (the ventral striatum) associated with the anticipation of pleasures—such as sex, sweets, and gambling.
Gambling, in particular, was the focus of this study. Research subjects were given new words to learn, then given money to gamble. The two seemingly disconnected activities proved to trigger the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits in the exact same way. The findings suggest a collaborative relationship between our brain’s super old, proto-human parts (the subcortical reward system associated with sex and eating) and its more recently evolved neocortical language regions.The study’s authors think this “functional and anatomical coupling” is what facilitated our unique ability to gain linguistic skills in the first place. As in, ancestral humans expanded their vocabularies because each time they learned new words, their brains signaled feelings of rewards-based pleasure.
Scientists still haven’t pinpointed the exact neural processes that drive human language acquisition, but now we know why we keep doing it: it feels good. Our understanding of each new word comes with a feeling of pleasure related to that specific activity–resulting in more words, more activities, and more pleasure. The importance of our linguistic abilities isn’t just about interpersonal communication. Language was the impetus for entirely new developments in the way humans understand the world and our own mental functioning – rationality, logic, self-reflection, etc.
Now we know to thank pleasure for our complexity. Our biology rewards us when we develop our vocabularies, just as feel the reward of pleasant feeling when we copulate in order to procreate. Sex ensures our evolutionary survival and language ensures our evolutionary dominance. Most importantly, both makes us feel good by activating our pleasure centers – our rewards for honoring humanity’s essential elements.