New Words Not Like Sex


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For years, Ph.D. student Pablo Ripolles Vidal and his supervisors at the University of Barcelona entertained the notion that a brain’s reward system should be stimulated by the act of language learning. Travelers and foreign settlers can attest to this phenomenon; it feels very satisfying to decipher new words from interacting with the locals. And everyone knows at least one person who is mad about languages and constantly seeks to devour a new one.

The main problem researchers ran into while embarking on this study stemmed from a realization that they would be unable to provide explicit feedback to their subjects. They worried positive feedback (i.e. “correct!” or “well-done!”) awarded directly after the learning process could potentially activate the reward network on its own.

To overcome this setback, Vidal and his team selected a contextual learning paradigm in which subjects could learn new words on their own. Participants would read a sentence in German (the study was conducted in Germany) with a new word contained near the end of the passage.

For example, “In the lake, the man took a jedin.” After reading this, subjects would read another sentence. “The man was rowing in his jedin.” Through the context offered between the two sentences, a reader can infer that the word jedin means boat.

Vidal, a native Spanish speaker, tells BTR he has often experienced inferential situations similar to those being tested, especially while reading in English.

“I lost track of how many new words I learned by reading all of the Game of Thrones books,” Vidal explains. “I would come across a new word, but was too lazy to get the dictionary. However, using the context provided by the sentence, I could definitely learn its meaning.”

During the experiment, subjects could learn up to 40 new words from the assortment of contexts provided. UB researchers employed diffusion tensor imaging to reconstruct the white matter pathways that link brain regions in each participant.

What they discovered was that when subjects managed to learn the meaning of a new word the ventral striatum (a key reward center in the brain) was activated, along with left cortical areas traditionally related to language.

Interestingly enough, the participants also conducted a gambling paradigm in which they could win or lose money. Vidal discovered that there was an overlap between the activation of the ventral stratum when subjects learned a new word and when they gained money.

It’s important to note, however, that just because both activities activate the same brain area doesn’t mean that they bear the same effect.

Shortly after the press release of the original findings was first distributed, a Spanish publication called La Vanguardia got their hands on it. After making the connection that the ventral striatum is also activated by sex, drugs, and food, they concluded that learning new words has the exact same effect.

Before long, the article went viral. Vidal couldn’t believe the news.

“The problem is no longer whether it is sensationalist or not, the problem is that it is simply not true,” he says. “I have lost track of how many different sources in Spanish, German, English, and French reported the findings as truth, many of them including my name in the article.”

Apparently nobody checked their sources. Several major Spanish television stations commented on the findings as “learning words has the same effect as sex” because they saw the statement printed on RT, which had copied it from La Vanguardia.

The spreading wildfire of poor reporting hit Vidal a little too close to home. A budget crisis struck Spain in 2008, and in the years since two different governments in the country have reduced the science budget in some areas up to 30-40 percent. The means for European Union investment in 2012 was a meager 2.06 percent, and the provisional statistic for 2013 says that the figure is only dwindling. Vidal confirms that more than 5,000 Spanish research positions were lost last year alone.

Needless to say, after overcoming this adversity Vidal is more than a little upset that his hard work and determination risked being all for naught thanks to a web of sensationalized publicity.

“Because our experiment involved collaboration between labs, it was very difficult to pull it through with all of the budget cuts,” says Vidal. “So in my case, upset is not even the right word. Outraged, pissed off… you can pick.”

What angered him most was reading through the online comments on these faulty articles. Much of the user feedback revolved around sentiments such as, “why did they spend our money on that shit?” Vidal couldn’t help but think the critical commentators were right–he would have thought the same thing in their shoes. He’s afraid that misleading headlines only further spread the misconception that science is worthless.

Vidal acknowledges the distinctions between journalistic and scientific articles; he recognizes that a journalist often must rely on salient and attractive headlines to ensure readership. But where is the line that separates a catchy headline from the truth?

Despite the serious misunderstanding, the researcher is by no means condemning journalism. He admits that he has received support from many journalists who were outraged about what had happened, and who dedicated themselves to helping him spread the word.

“Journalism is vital for science, because people have the right to know what we are doing with their money and why it is important,” says Vidal. “As researchers we need the support of journalists to achieve this goal.”

Vidal hopes that the study will help open new research lines into language learning, with particular regards to the motivational and reward aspects. He is currently at work discovering how the integrity of several different “white matter pathways” responsible for conveying information could be related to language learning.

“Darwin said that although he thought language was not an instinct, we do possess an instinct to learn language,” reflects Vidal. “I like to think that we are starting a journey and, as in all basic science, we don’t know where it leads. And that is kind of cool.”