It may not have seemed like it in the middle of high school Spanish class, but actually mastering those flash cards and learning new words can make your brain a happy camper. A new study suggests that our neurological reward system is responsible for that satisfaction.
The small study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Current Biology, investigated why and how we're so biologically motivated to learn a language — in babyhood and beyond. To do so, the researchers monitored the brain activity of 36 participants while they took part in two different tasks: gambling (which helped researchers pinpoint the brain areas linked to monetary rewards) and learning the meaning of new words. While participants completed these tasks, their brain activity was recorded with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Their results showed that the ventral striatum was activated in a similar way during both tasks. For the gambling, it makes sense that the ventral-striatum scans lit up: It's a dopamine-rich area that's commonly associated with a variety of "rewarding" activities — including drug use, drug-seeking behavior, and of course gambling.
Although these results make sense in this context, the study still has its limitations. For instance, fMRI doesn't really take a picture of the brain per se; instead, it uses blood oxygen levels as an indirect measure of brain activity. So, it can give us a good idea of what's going on, but it doesn't necessarily provide a complete picture. Either way, this research is a great excuse to become a vocab master. So, quit being such a braggadocio and go practice your oneiromancy or something terpsichorean.