How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?

Do you think that there is such a thing as a game of chance? Let us blow your mind and tell you that everything is designed for deceiving your brain. And when your brain is deceived, you don’t stand a chance to win at gambling. In this article, we will take you on a little neuroscience trip to answer the question, “How does gambling affect the brain?” Why? Because when you know all the facts, it is easier to understand the consequences!

Why Do People Like to Gamble?

Gambling dates back to the earliest times when people used to gamble with a four-sided bone, a dice precursor. Nowadays, the British gambling industry’s revenue is worth £14.5 billion. Since gambling is so exciting for our brains and makes our reward chemical system go nuts, many countries made it illegal. 

Even the most infamous king Henry XIII banned it to prevent his guards and soldiers from getting distracted. He enjoyed gambling and once lost the Jesus Bells of the Old St. Paul’s Church while playing dice.

Did you know?

  • Brits have been gambling legally for 61 years, and the most popular gambling game in the UK is still the national lottery.

Why Are We Addicted to Losing?

What does a casino do to make the gambler high? Many factors impact our addiction, but the main one is our brain. When our brain gets a reward, it triggers some hormones which want us to repeat the experience. That’s how we get hooked on flashing casino lights and noisy slot machines.

Not so long ago, gambling was regarded as a behavioural problem, but our brain doesn’t think so. The study on the psychological effects of gambling has shown that our brain gets so used to gambling that it triggers the same hormones and brain functions as during addictive substance use. There are different types of gambling addiction, but all of them provoke the same brain functions.

There are reward chemicals in our brain triggered every time we want a juicy hamburger, alcohol, or drug. They also get stimulated during other activities. A gambler feels this rush only when he plays, and it doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. Later we will discover that these chemicals are so naive that they can be triggered even by smells, lights, food, etc.

Addiction has several defining components:

  • Continued engagement in the activity despite the consequences
  • Diminished self-control over engagement in the activity
  • Compulsive engagement in the activity
  • Craving state or an appetitive urge before engaging in the gambling activity

Without knowing how the brain gets addicted to gambling, you can never fight the addiction. You must understand that addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that craves reward, similar to when our brain wants a substance. If it causes you to obsessively chase the prize without foreseeing the consequences, you should ask for help.

Did you know?

  • Every casino detail is tailored to deceive your mind. Slot machines signal every single win with flashy lights and noisy sounds that trigger your dopamine to gamble more!

Which Chemicals Get Us Addicted to Gambling, and How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?

We have a complex chemical cocktail that gambles with our minds. However, the main ingredients are dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. Spiced with cortisol, they make us lose it all. 

To understand the science of gambling, let’s start with our brain first. Engaging in gambling is like getting behind the wheel of a new car. At first, you feel confident, excited, and in control — the same feelings you get when you win. It’s like there is nothing to worry about: time has stopped, and you are on top of the world. Now, let’s see what happens next and how the brain gets addicted to gambling.

We can compare a reward hub (ventral striatum) in our brain to a gas pedal in our car. When it receives the ”Go” signal, we’re encouraged to do what we want. Then this command goes to the top-down control network (our prefrontal cortex), which functions as a brake, and gives us the signal to “Stop” or just check that we are playing consciously. Now, if these two hubs of your brain communicate well, you will never know what pathological gambling is.

Addiction is a communication problem between these two hubs in your brain. It’s like you keep pressing on the gas, and when you want to stop — the brakes don’t work. You might notice your problem too late because habits are formed in another hub (dorsal striatum), an unconscious part of our brain. That’s when you feel like you`re driving on autopilot — not for fun and excitement — but just out of habit. For gamblers, this is a problem gambling state, which might lead to financial and emotional losses. You might end up losing your loved ones, partners, and friends.

The Brain — Our Chemical Supercomputer

Our brain is acting as a computer, writing and rewriting our paths. Hacking the brain chemicals can break the addictive chain between gambling and the brain. However, few hormones that lead our brain to addiction or habitual behaviours are not so easy to hack. The understanding of their codes could help to break their paths easily.

Adrenaline — Fight, Flight, or Gamble?

Adrenaline is a stress hormone. That’s what gives you concentration, energy, and alertness, which is good if you gamble once. It may stop you from gambling or make you aware of the consequences. 

During gambling activity, the adrenaline level increases. Therefore, if gambling becomes a repetitive act, after a while, even the mere thought of it may make you feel restless or irritable. Moreover, adrenaline rush effects on blood pressure and heart rate are adverse. The gamblers can also experience increased arousal, anxiety, problems with sleep, focus, and overall health.

Dopamine, a Reward System that Makes Us Go “All in” and… Lose

The dopamine system in the brain is the main one to look at when it comes to addiction. It is the primary neurotransmitter for reward, pleasure, and drive. It will make you believe that you are unstoppable and that these lucky charms really work. Many studies have shown that the release of dopamine while gambling is similar to that of drug use. It’s important to know since if the gambling experience is repeated, it could become a habit and transit into gambling addiction.

During addiction, the brain is provoked by activity instead of an external substance. The brain shows the same picture when a gambler:

  • sees a video of a gambling act
  • only anticipates the process of winning the prize
  • actually wins the prize

Clearly, it’s dangerous since our brain doesn’t know the difference and produces dopamine anyway. That’s why dopamine and gambling together make a lasting change on the brain, which gets hooked up on gambling and triggers the reward system to release up to 10 times more dopamine than usual.

Certain drugs block dopamine addiction, but the side effects include decreased alertness, faded happiness, and low motivation.

Serotonin Puts All the Chips in One Round

This magical substance floats through your entire nervous system and regulates your mood naturally. It also makes memories trigger emotions. One of the many side effects of gambling is low serotonin levels, which may increase the gambler’s motivation to satisfy urges and become a precursor of impairments in reward processing.

Problem gamblers experience massive amounts of serotonin and dopamine throughout one gambling session. These hormones wash their brain over and over and can last for hours, or even days, until one day the gambler is finally ready for gambling withdrawal.

Cortisol — The Silent Killer With an Ace in Its Sleeve

Cortisol is a stress hormone. If it gets high, it can wreck all your health. The odds that you will win in the casino are very low, maybe impossible. But what makes people gamble is the need to make up for their losses. So how does gambling affect cortisol? With every loss, production levels of cortisol increase. The hormone that can lower cortisol is dopamine. In order to raise dopamine, the gambler would have to make many attempts to win. It’s a never-ending circle.

With high cortisol and even higher debts, the gambler wouldn’t be able to sleep, rest, and surely the blood pressure would rise. Also, the hormone has a wide range of other effects: it may sharpen your anxiety and impulsivity and dull your attention, working memory, and error detection.

Testosterone — Fake Financial Advisor

One of the most interesting gambling facts is that the major gambling population is male. It might be due to testosterone. While it is not the only hormone that influences financial decisions, it plays an important role. 

Individuals with high testosterone levels take greater risks than those with low levels. Naturally, making bets and risking your money is stressful. Stress — that’s where cortisol comes in. Cortisol combined with testosterone might hit your bank account badly. 

Did you know?

  • Women have cyclic hormones which interfere with gambling decisions. Women gamblers are likely to gamble more and even place higher risk bets during ovulation.

Casinos Cash-in in Dopamine

If you didn’t get it by now, dopamine is the ruler of any kind of addiction. So, what is gambling addiction in a nutshell? It is the consequence that comes from somehow distorted brain areas and reward pathways, which makes the gambler want more and more as if it’s a drug substance. 

Moreover, the uncertainty also enhances gamblers’ cravings. Illogically, what triggers the rewarding release of dopamine to the same degree as winning — is losing. That’s what makes players gamble more or chase their losses.

Why Does the House Always Win?

Firstly, we must tell you that the odds of you winning at slots is actually 1 in nearly 50 million combinations! Secondly, slot machines are designed in a way that every detail and rule deceive you into thinking that you can win. Now, we will connect all the dots between the psychology of gambling and other factors to show you the greater picture.

Flashy Lights, Noisy Slots, and Fast Music

The slot machines are considered the most popular and most dangerous place in the casino. They are perfect complex computers that stimulate your reward system with flashy lights, exciting sounds, and cheering music every time you win. These machines are programmed to show you a potential jackpot prize to make you think that you are close to winning. 

As for the flashy lights, they are usually of red colour, stimulating your adrenaline and arousing you even more. Have you noticed that slots never mark your losses with any sounds or flashes? It’s because the house wants you to forget your count and make you think that you are winning more than losing. 

Human psychology says that when humans interact with machines, they feel that they are in control. In other words, when you press the buttons, you think that you are the one deciding when and how much you will win, making any disappointment less intense.

Another interesting aspect is that you usually play with chips or digital credits. Have you ever wondered why? It’s easier to forget how much you’ve spent this way. Also, when you don’t see how much you lose, you think that you are playing a naive game and there is no need to stress. What is gambling invented for? To make you gamble, of course.

Did you know?

  • New findings have discovered that women do not gamble if the casino is overcrowded.

The Red Light Is the New Green

The red colour has a unique effect on our emotions, mood, and behaviour. Red means blood, blood means food — all that for our primitive brain is arousing. Many casinos invest in red decor, red interior, and red lights. Therefore, even when gamblers lose, instead of being concerned, they are excited to play more. Are you still wondering, “How does gambling affect the brain?” 

When we enter a red room, our adrenaline goes up, and we feel aroused. That’s when the primitive fight or flight feeling is calling us to do something. And while our other senses are occupied with sounds, noises, and flashes, we are motivated to fight for the win that will never happen.

Let us share the interesting effects of red light on rats revealed in one study. Two groups of rats were given sugar cubes. The first group was in a regular cage with daylight, while the second one was in a red-lighted space. Rats who were in the red-lighted cage had eaten more sugar than the others.

It is believed that people spend a lot more money if they are in the red-lighted room, too. This poses a question: can a gambler change, and how hard is it to understand that the brain is manipulated?

They Will Feed You Food, You Will Feed Them Money

When our body’s basic needs are met, our serotonin level goes up, signalling that we are fine and secure. And because serotonin is a digestive chemical, it’s pretty easy to manipulate it. 

Casinos often offer free drinks and even meals. Why? As we’ve already learnt, gambling and the brain are strongly associated with each other. When you satisfy your hunger, you’re not distracted anymore and are ready to stay in the casino longer. Well, good for casinos — your time is their money!

Remember, whatever free food and beverage tricks the casino comes up with, it’s only to dull your thinking and assertiveness and make your stay a little longer.

Clocks on Ignore and Decor to Explore

As mentioned earlier, casinos try to keep our senses busy. 

  • Our eyes are focused on the slot machines, games, and colours. 
  • Our hands are occupied with chips and buttons.
  •  Our ears are entertained with different chimes and cheerful music.

We perceive what our eyes see. When we see daylight, our brain knows the approximate time of day. But if there are no windows, we can only depend on the clock. Well, guess what — you will never find windows or clocks in the casinos. They actually want you to lose track of time and spend more money.

What’s so special about casino decor? The gambling houses look like “adult playgrounds”. Most houses invest a lot of money into their interior, making marble floors, golden ceilings, etc. Moreover, many casinos scent their rooms with certain smells, attracting gamblers to spend more. 

Today, many businesses learn from the casino industry, which follows every psychological finding and has the highest revenue per annum. 

Did you know?

  • Casinos spend over £160 billion per year on psychological findings to improve their “adult playgrounds.”

Is There a Chance to Get Out of These Games of Chance?

Gambling is not bad if you do it for fun and have spare money. But when it’s becoming a problem, you should be aware of symptoms to recognize if you or your loved ones get addicted. A problem gambler might: 

  • Be secretive about financial records, lack money, and leave unpaid bills
  • Be withdrawn from family events due to social effects of gambling 
  • Be secretive about his/her absence or take two hours for a simple task (e.g., buying newspapers)

However, not every addict can easily recognize these symptoms. If you realize that one of your friends or family members struggles with gambling addiction, try to be understanding and help them overcome the problem. Don’t forget that they get manipulated by this giant industry.

If you are a gambler yourself, try not to be super judgemental and devastated because, at the end of the day, this is an addiction made up of unconscious habits. You can change your habits consciously whenever you like, with a little help.

Final Thoughts

It was easy to pull money out of everyone’s pocket in the past. Nowadays, businesses struggle due to numerous factors. However, with the gambling industry moving online, casinos invest in a new way of entertaining the human brain, which includes the rise of online betting apps. If you’re involved in gambling, have fun and play cautiously. Remember all the tricks the gambling industry uses against our brain, summarized in our ”How does gambling affect the brain?” article.

FAQ

What happens to the brain when gambling?

Compulsive gambling overstimulates the brain, triggering a boost in the brain’s defence response, weakening the reward system, and lowering the amount of “pleasure” experienced by the gambler. The brain develops a need for more dopamine to activate its reward system. To get more dopamine, one needs to play more. So what happens with our brain is one magical circle that later transforms into addiction.

Why do people gamble even after many losses? 

The reason why people gamble after many losses can be explained by our brain’s risk/reward system. The feeling of risk produces adrenaline and endorphins, which push the “Play” button. Many people have a budget for gambling. After they spend it, they stop playing. It doesn’t work the same way with problem gamblers because their brain reward system transits to a habit. They gamble out of habit until they lose it all.

How common are gambling addictions?

According to statistics, there are around 24 million adult gamblers in the UK. 2.7% or 1.4 million people out of them are problem gamblers. There is no way to find out if someone is on their way to becoming a problem gambler. However, these 1.4 million people affect other 3.6 million people (their families, friends, colleagues, etc.) with their problems.

Does gambling change the brain?

Gambling usually changes the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, making them inactive or overreactive. Then, it retraces their communication in a habitual correlation. 

How can I quit gambling?

Wondering how to quit gambling? Here are six steps you can follow:

  1. Understand that you have a gambling problem.
  2. Find a support group you can join.
  3. Try to avoid temptation.
  4. Occupy yourself with an alternative activity.
  5. Don’t forget about the consequences.
  6. Contact the professionals to help you deal with your addiction.

Can your brain recover from gambling?

According to one study, when gamblers and non-gamblers were tested, 81% of the gamblers had brain damage, and 61% had dysfunctional activity. It proves that gambling impacts the brain, but the recovery depends on the gambler’s willingness to recover and receive special help, which is more than needed.

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