Research shows that people dedicate some 30-40% of their speech to communicating their subjective experiences to others. The old saying to teach is to learn might have been taken a little to the extreme, but none the less, psychologists believe that communicating thoughts and experiences to others stimulates cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with reward. Put simply, we feel better when we share thoughts, experiences and ideas with those around us.

Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell said:

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding … People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.”

Their findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, goes beyond mere theory or opinion and looks at the brain function associated with talking about oneself. The scientists found that self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form what is known as the mesolimbic dopamine system, and includes the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area.

There is still some controversy about the exact function of dopamine, however, this region of the brain is associated with reward, euphoria and satisfaction. It is associated with food, sex, money and other gratifying activities. Tests on rats have shown that those with damaged ventral tegmental area do not lose their ability to learn new things, they simply lack motivation, because the brain’s reward system is not functional.

Tamir used an MRI scanner to confirm the reaction of the subjects brain. The scanner is able to pick up changes in neurons activity, as well as blood flow. Scientists were then able to assess the part of the brain that was responding to what the subject was talking about. When people talked about themselves blood flow to the region became more active.

People were also tested using more regular psychological scenarios, such as being offered money to talk about President Obama, or being able to talk about themselves without being paid. The test subjects willing gave up a quarter of their possible earning from the tests, to talk about themselves. Ms. Tamir said this brought a smile to her team, and they coined the term ‘A Penny for your Thoughts Study’

Together, the findings show that the human tendency to convey information about personal experience, may arise from the intrinsic value associated with self-disclosure. The question is why the brain has evolved to derive a sense of pleasure from this activity. Is sharing with others simply an important function in maintaining social contact, or is it also a way of helping our brain to process experiences and thus learn ourselves?

Written by Rupert Shepherd