Author: Katherine Chen
Editors: Junyu Zheng and Jaylen Peng
Artist: Alvina Zheng
Gambling rates have surged to unprecedented levels, with studies revealing that approximately 2 million US adults have a severe gambling disorder, while an additional 4-6 million experience mild to moderate gambling issues annually. Amid the recent pandemic, gambling has become increasingly prevalent. Casinos and online gambling were among the limited entertainment avenues available during lockdowns and quarantine, drawing more people to participate. The pandemic’s stressors likely prompted many to turn to gambling as a source of emotional comfort or a coping mechanism. Gambling involves giving up something in hopes of gaining something with a more desired value. It is rapid and instantaneous, allowing individuals to place multiple simultaneous bets, making it addicting. While most adults who engage in gambling can do so responsibly, for those who cannot, the consequences can be dire. Issues stemming from gambling include, but are not limited to, substantial financial debt, severe health complications, decreased productivity, and damaged relationships.
Several regions of the brain are involved in this addiction to gambling. The ventral striatum, responsible for processing rewards and emotions like happiness, exhibits decreased activity in chronic gamblers. It may seem counterintuitive, but researchers propose the reward deficiency model as an explanation. Individuals prone to addiction often have an underactive brain reward system, leading them to seek various reward-stimulating activities like using a substance or gambling. Simultaneously, there is reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain involved in decision-making, impulse control, and cognitive regulation. Thus, differences in the functioning of a gambler’s prefrontal cortex may contribute to difficulties in processing decisions involving immediate small rewards versus delayed more significant rewards and potential consequences. This insight implies that people struggling with gambling addiction are more motivated by a desire to compensate for the lack of activity in their reward system and the associated positive feelings than the focus on the money itself.
Neuroscience research shows that drug addicts and people addicted to gambling share many common traits. Like drugs, gambling triggers the brain's reward system, which is fueled by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is known for its role in reinforcing pleasure, learning, motivation, and risk-taking. While normal activities such as exercise, shopping, or eating prompt the release of this chemical, it reaches heightened levels during gambling and drug use. The appeal of uncertainty associated with rewards is one of the best ways to stimulate dopamine release. This excessive amount of dopamine causes rapid learning, making individuals motivated by risk-taking behavior. You may expect to feel excited only when you win, but your body also produces this neurological response when you lose, making it challenging for gamblers to recognize when it’s time to stop. With continued gambling, the brain develops tolerance to dopamine release, requiring larger amounts to induce the same euphoric effect. If separated from the chemical, gamblers will often face symptoms of withdrawal and repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce or quit. This phenomenon, known as chasing losses, explains why gamblers persist despite substantial financial setbacks. Dopamine shows how the unpredictability of rewards, or partial reinforcement, can be as, if not more satisfying than the rewards themselves. This cycle reinforces the tendency for players to find themselves repeatedly drawn back to the game, driven by the belief that the next opportunity could be a winning one.
Numerous detrimental beliefs bolster the allure of gambling. One such belief is the Gambler’s Fallacy, which wrongly assumes that if particular events or outcomes have occurred more frequently in the past than normal, they are less likely (or more likely) to happen in the future. However, in reality, the likelihood of these events or outcomes remains independent of past occurrences. For instance, if a coin lands on tails five times in a row, you may think that “the next one has to be heads!” Nonetheless, the probability of flipping heads is still 50 percent, irrespective of prior outcomes. Gamblers may also fall prey to an illusion of control where they believe they possess control over an uncontrollable outcome. This illusion often manifests as a belief in possessing unique skills or knowledge that provides an advantage when gambling. For example, some may firmly believe that a specific slot machine guarantees a win.
Current treatment options out there for people with gambling problems include forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy that teaches people how to change their thinking patterns and habits. Certain medications, including opioid antagonists like naltrexone, can work indirectly by inhibiting brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby diminishing cravings associated with gambling. Additionally, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may exhibit effectiveness in reducing symptoms of gambling disorder, particularly in managing concurrent depression.
So when you gamble, know that the games are designed to be entertaining and take advantage of our fascination with uncertainty, encouraging continued play. It’s crucial to acknowledge that the odds are typically not in your favor, and ultimately, the house always wins. So, set limits. If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling issues, seeking help is essential. There’s a number that you can always call, text, or chat at 1-800-GAMBLER.
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