Scientists Have Discovered an Activity Just as Pleasurable as Sex, Drugs and Gambling

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The news: While opening up a dictionary might not seem as fun and exciting as eating chocolate or having sex, a new study suggests it might be.

According to the study, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers in Spain and Germany have found that expanding your vocabulary activates the ventral striatum, a reward-processing part of the brain involved in pleasurable activities such as sex, gambling, doing drugs or eating good food. 

In other words, boosting your vocabulary can be just as good has having sex or getting high.

"The aim of the study was to find out to what extent learning a language could activate these pleasure and reward circuits," lead author Antoni Rodríguez Fornells told Catalan paper La Vanguardia.  "From the point of view of evolution, it is an interesting theory that this type of mechanism could have helped human language to develop."

What does this mean? For the study, 36 participants were asked to take part in gambling simulations and language-learning trials, where they were taught new words. The results showed that both activities stimulate the ventral striatum, leading the researchers to posit that our bodies have a natural mechanism to reward learning, which then motivates us to learn even more.

"Recent theoretical models have proposed that during human evolution, emerging language-learning mechanisms might have been glued to older subcortical reward systems, reinforcing human motivation to learn a new language," the study authors concluded.

This is far from the first study to show a link between learning and pleasure, but it does help explain why people are drawn to learning new words and languages. Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason for why we love crossword puzzles and Scrabble.

It also sheds further light on our connection to quick-fix pleasure-inducers like drugs, gambling and sex versus what might be viewed as more "labor-intensive" ways to have fun like learning. While it's easy to turn to those quick fixes, more long-term satisfactions will likely provide more enjoyment over time without exposing the user to what could be dangerous practices. 

In other words, hit the books, not the pipe. 

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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