Researchers from Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona and Otto von Guericke University in Magedburg, Germany tested a group of adults and found that learning new words stimulated the same regions of the brain as gambling, taking drugs or eating chocolate.
The study group consisted of 36 adults whose brains were monitored with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans while taking part in simulation tests involving gambling and languages. Typically, language activates the brain’s cortical language region but when scientists tested participants they found that learning new words also stimulates the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that is activated by pleasurable activities.
The research appeared to show that developing a vocabulary caused the brain to produce myelin, which is related to the subcortical reward and motivational systems, according to Pablo Ripollés, of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute. When participants learned new words, the levels of myelin in their system also increased. Learning a new language was already known to help strengthen connections between neurons, but this research also suggests a boost to emotions, in the same way as taking part in pleasurable activities or eating chocolate or sugary foods.
The research, which has been published in the journal Current Biology, also indicated that differences in the participants’ ventral striatum connections might predict future success in learning new vocabulary. This and the link with reward systems may affect people’s motivation to learning a new language – if the brain rewards individuals with that ‘sugar’ high, they may be more likely to continue learning.
Of course, if the brain rewards all of these activities in the same way, we might ask why people turn first towards chocolate or gambling rather than a thesaurus. Part of the reason could be because the former are quick fixes and also may provide a more intense ‘hit’, whereas expanding a language is more of a slow burn that needs us to work a little harder. However, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that learning a language is the healthier and more beneficial option.
Previous research has shown that learning a new language can help stave off the effects of ageing on the brain by stimulating neural networks to grow and link up. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh showed that people in their seventies who were bilingual or multilingual had far better mental abilities than monolinguists. This applied to those who had long spoken two or more languages, but also to those who had taken one up more recently, proving it is never too late to start.