Your Brain While Gambling: Motivation, Reward and Fear

08th August5 min read

How do you feel when you gamble? It’s usually quite simple – you’ll feel happy when you win and frustrated when you lose. Your brain’s reward system responds in the same way as it would when you dig into a bar of chocolate or when you’ve bought a new dress at the mall. It’s an “endorphin rush” or a temporary “high”! In biological and psychological terms, the gambling experience is a little bit more complicated. There are endorphins, brain scans and behavioural traits to consider. So, let’s get our science on.

The Brain Passes Information Via Neurons

Here’s a quick 101 on how your brain works. Our brain passes information from one to another, using chemical signals like dopamine and endorphins. There are millions of these neurons in our brain; each neuron passes information to the one next to it. This vast and complex network of neurons ultimately affects our behaviour.

Dopamine, The Motivator

Dopamine is the molecule behind all of our most powerful behaviours. The dopamine (in the brain’s mesolimbic pathway) drives motivation and pleasure. It plays a part in love, lust, drugs and any activity that makes you feel good. So, how does dopamine work? When you experience something pleasurable, such as striking a winning slot combination or eating cake, your brain’s dopamine neurons get excited. Then, the brain learns about this pleasure and tries to predict when it will happen again. Slowly, your brain associates a cue to the reward. Like your dog gets excited when you take its food bowl out, your brain gets excited when you launch the slot game on your phone. Your brain sends a dopamine signal when it sees the reward coming. In the natural order of things, this neural system helps humans and animals assess rewards, like food. It is necessary for survival.

Here is what happens when your dopamine levels get out of hand. A Parkinson’s patient once received a drug that imitated the effects of dopamine. This is because dopamine plays a role in controlling movement as well. As her doctor upped her doses of dopamine, she suddenly became a gambling addict. Every day, she’d play slots until 3.30am. After a year, she lost $200,000. When she got off the drug, her gambling addiction vanished!

Endorphins and Pleasure

Once you settle comfortably into your game, the brain rewards itself. You’d know these symptoms. When you gamble, you get more excited and your heart beats faster. That’s the adrenaline speaking. Researchers have measured this – on average, players’ heart rate increase by 26.7 beats per minute after 9 minutes when playing slots. Blackjack is slightly less exciting, as players’ heart rate increases by 23 bpm. When you win, endorphins make you feel happy and satisfied.

The Fear of Losing Money, or Loss Aversion

Thankfully, our brain has systems in place to control our need for excitement. Norepinephrine is released when a person is under stress or in a time of arousal or thrill. If your brain produces the right amount of this hormone, you’ll sense a fear of losing more money and simply walk away. Players with too few of these hormone transporters are less sensitive to this concern and make different decisions.

In 2010, Californian scientists discovered that the amygdala (deep within the brain) is also responsible for money loss aversion. Their experiment is quite entertaining – they found two rare patients who had damaged their amygdala (but no other brain damage) and gave them a series of gambling tasks. Both of these ladies showed a dramatic reduction in loss aversion compared to the control participants; they would play even if the potential loss was greater than the potential gain! Their injuries prevented them from recognising or feeling fear.

The Unfortunate Truth: Slots are Designed to Exploit Your Brain

Here’s an exploitable fact: random rewards are much more powerful than predictable ones. Think about the slot machine. When you turn the wheels, your brain anticipates the verdict and generates lots of dopamine. Chances are you lost some money. However, dopamine, the motivator keeps cheering, “you’re close, keep going!” When you finally score some cash, these dopamine neurons go crazy!

Your brain during slots: "Am I going to win? No, I'll win the next round. I've got to keep playing!"

This is because your brain cells are trying to predict the patterns inside the slot machine. But, slot machines are designed to be unpredictable! The best slot games provide an illusion of a pattern. You’ll be rewarded just enough so that you keep on playing. Your brain cells strive really hard to decode the pattern, and they never will. As they say, gambling hijacks the brain’s pleasure centres.

"Gambling games grew up around the frailty of our nervous system. They evolved to exploit specific hiccups in our brain."Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University

It isn’t just the unpredictability of slots that captures your attention. There are bonus rounds that keep your excitement going, even when you lose. Certain gambling games also gives your brain the illusion of control. For example, online roulette tables always issue statistics so that you can “intelligently predict” the next lucky number. The sounds on the slot machine also affect your playing experience. A study by the University of Waterloo measured players’ heart rate responses while playing slots. The players who played with sound showed a heightened physical response. They also overestimated how much they’ve won. Music reinforces the rewarding feeling; of course, slot designers exploit this fact. Today’s slot games have about 400 sound effects! If you bet £1 and only win 20p, these games play the same celebratory songs; disguising the loss as a win!

How do Problem Gamblers’ Brains Work?

Gambling addiction is a craving for intense pleasure. Like any addictive substance or behaviour, the human brain eventually builds a tolerance to the drug/dopamine. It’ll need larger and larger amounts to get high. Problem gamblers don’t get the same feeling of euphoria as healthy gamblers; they are somewhat desensitised to winning. Researchers have also found low electrical activity in their brain regions that assess risks. Pathological gamblers also get the urge to gamble whenever they experience an exciting situation, whether or not it is gambling related.

Treatment for gambling addictions tackles these problems head-on. There are opioid antagonists (such as naltrexone and nalmefene) that inhibit brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby reducing cravings. There is also cognitive behaviour therapy, which teaches people to resist unwanted thoughts. For example, they’ll learn that near misses do not signal an imminent win.

It turns out that your brain does crazy and wonderful things when you gamble. Whether you like slots, poker or financial trading, your brain has a say in your decisions. The next time your partner complains about your gambling habit, feel free to say, “It’s not me, it’s my hormones!”

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