A recent study of how word learning lights up reward centers in the brain indicates a relationship that won't come as a surprise to anyone learning words on Vocabulary.com. Apparently, word learning makes us happy.

Really happy. As happy as we feel when we're engaged in pleasurable activities such as eating great food.

In the Genetic Literacy Project, science writer Diana Gitig explains:

A recent study indicates that for some people, learning new words activated the same machinery in the brain as sex, drugs, and possibly fatty and sugary foods. Indulging in these activities feels pleasurable because they activate reward circuits in our brain, especially those mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

This is a significant finding. As Gitig goes on to explain, it might point the way to an understanding of how humans evolved to use language. And here at Vocabulary.com, we're wondering if it might also explain why teachers, students, and individual users continue to tell us that our word learning game is addictive and fun. 

Both language acquisition and word learning on Vocabulary.com, it turns out, work by hooking us in, making us feel good as we're learning, and then leave us wanting more. Writes Gitig:

Dopamine’s effect is fleeting: once it dissipates, we want to recapture the feeling it gave us. This reward seeking can motivate many human behaviors, and like many such motivators, its power can be used for good or for ill.

Interestingly, the response to word-learning dopamine is not the same for everyone. Gitig quotes Pablo Ripollés, a PhD student who worked on the study as saying:

"Those with higher myelin concentrations – or a better connection to the reward area –were able to learn more words." This jibes with a theory of human evolution that is currently in vogue: it is not the types of neurons or neurotransmitters that we have that distinguish our brains from those of apes and other primates – they have all the same stuff we do. The cells and regions of our brains are just more interconnected than theirs. And this interconnectivity is another essential element of our proclivity for language.

In other words, it's not our brain's capacity for learning we should be focusing on when we set out to learn new words. It's our brain's capacity for pleasure. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Or put that pipe down and play a few rounds of word learning on Vocabulary.com. The end result will be a dopamine rush either way.