How Gambling Affects the Brain


Gambling has always been an important part of our culture, whether it’s a friendly game of cards with family and friends or a wager on a sports event. But gambling can have serious consequences, especially for people with a mental illness. Pathological gambling is a disorder that affects the brain’s reward system and impairs our ability to make sound decisions. It is associated with a variety of psychological and medical problems, including depression, anxiety and addiction.

Many gamblers have a hard time admitting they have a problem. Some are embarrassed to ask for help, while others try to hide their habit by lying about how much money they’ve lost or denying that they have a problem at all. But there are ways to treat and prevent gambling addiction.

One of the most effective treatment methods is cognitive-behavior therapy, which teaches people to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. This therapy is also proven to reduce the frequency and duration of gambling episodes. Another technique is mindfulness meditation, which helps people focus on the present moment and learn to accept that they’ll lose sometimes. It’s also important to only gamble with money you can afford to lose. It’s not worth risking your rent or phone bill. It’s also a good idea to set money and time limits for gambling and stop when you hit those limits.

Research suggests that near-misses and choice effects trigger a larger dopamine response in the brain than actual wins do. This is because these features of gambling games promote the illusion that a player can exert skill over a game that’s actually defined by chance. Dr Luke Clark is exploring these factors at the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure patterns of brain activity while volunteers play a gambling game.

Aside from these behavioral interventions, scientists are trying to understand why some people are more likely to develop gambling problems. Genetics, personality and environment are all possible contributing factors. Researchers have also found that certain regions of the brain are more active in people who have a gambling problem. These areas are involved in processing rewards, controlling impulses and weighing risks.

While some people are genetically predisposed to thrill-seeking behaviours and impulsivity, these factors can be overpowered by environmental and social influences. People who grow up in families where gambling is prevalent are more prone to developing problems than those who don’t. Moreover, some communities consider gambling to be a normal pastime, making it harder for them to recognise when gambling is becoming a problem. Finally, people in their early 20s are more prone to developing bad habits, because that’s when the brain is at its most vulnerable stage of development.