Some people argue that gambling is not really an addiction because it does not involve taking certain substances. However, the scientific facts surrounding problem gambling are clear:
Gambling causes measurable, objective changes in the chemistry of your brain. People think they have a lot of control over their actions and feelings, but that is not the reality.
Most of us are at the mercy of hormones in our brains that dramatically influence our decisions. The emotions you feel are chemical storms taking place in your brain. Winning at gambling releases dopamine which makes one feel good. This is the same chemical that is activated when you drink alcohol or take drugs, for example. In this article you will read more about exactly what gambling triggers in your brain.
What is dopamine and what does it do exactly?
Dopamine is a hormone used by your central nervous system to communicate from one nerve cell to another. Scientists call them neurotransmitters and dopamine is just one type of neurotransmitter in your central nervous system. Think of dopamine as one of the many chemicals that transmit messages from one cell to another.
In particular, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that transmits pleasure. When you enjoy something, anything, part of the reason is that it gives off dopamine. Dopamine affects how your brain and body handle things like learning, mood, pain and sleep. It also affects some strictly physical functions, such as your heart rate, kidney function and even breastfeeding.
Changes in dopamine levels can cause mental health problems, such as ADHD and schizophrenia. But the most interesting thing that dopamine affects, at least for the purpose of this article, is addiction. Medications cause a lot of dopamine to be released in your brain that makes one feel good, but after you take a medication repeatedly, you become less susceptible to this feeling.
Your body also stops making so much dopamine naturally. This can lead to a gambling addiction, among other things, and in addition, it can cause depression when you first give up your favorite drug (in this case, gambling).
Changes in dopamine levels can cause mental health problems, as can gambling
Gambling triggers release of dopamine
You might think that the only people who suffer from withdrawal symptoms are alcoholics and drug addicts. So that’s incorrect. Compulsive gamblers suffer from the same withdrawal symptoms as drug users. Gambling is a trigger for the release of dopamine. Gamblers often feel great, just as someone would if they were using cocaine, for example.
In fact, dopamine is the most powerful neurotransmitter in your body. When one gambles, about 10 times as much dopamine is produced. This is the reason why some people find it difficult to stop gambling. This gets worse when one subsequently stops gambling and so the amount of dopamine decreases. Your brain craves that extremely high feeling of happiness, so to speak.
The brain builds up tolerance
It takes time, but once someone has gambled enough, the brain builds up a tolerance to dopamine. Drug users experience the same phenomenon. In fact, think of your brain as a reward system for pleasure. This system weakens over time due to overuse of dopamine, but you still crave that feeling. So you have to take bigger risks to get bigger rewards (more dopamine).
In the short term, you begin to crave the sensation. This irrepressible craving becomes harder to deal with over time. In the long run, most people will eventually have to cut back on their gambling because their casino bankroll runs out. Now you no longer have a dopamine release and you begin to feel depressed. At that point, you have a serious problem for which you will need to seek help.
Process addiction versus substance addiction.
Someone diagnosed with a gambling disorder cannot control their urge to gamble, regardless of the consequences. If you want to see this in action, watch the movie “The Gambler” which portrays this very realistically. The consequences can be disastrous. It will obviously affect your finances, but it can also damage relationships with others. Eventually it will take its toll on your mental and physical health.
Problem gambling was not considered a legitimate mental illness until 1980. It was then renamed gambling disorder in 2013. This clarifies the greater understanding of the science on how similar substance addiction and gambling addiction are.
When it comes to the brain’s reactions to gambling, you see the same symptoms as with drug addiction:
- Inability to moderate
- Inability to abstain
- Life problems
Scientists think that addicts, alcoholics and problem gamblers probably all have the same abnormalities in the brain. These deviate from that of the brains of others. These abnormalities relate to impulse control and how the brain processes rewards.
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What happens to your brain when you gamble
Scientists can see exactly what happens in a person’s brain when they use alcohol or drugs. They can also see what happens in your brain when you are gambling.
They use images of the brain and chemical tests that measure the amounts of neurochemicals in the brain. This is how they know that the brains of addicts and problem gamblers work in much the same way. The two main areas of the brain that these studies look at are:
- The prefrontal cortex
- The ventral striatum
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is actually the part of your brain at the front. It determines planning for the future and how your personality works. In other words, it is the part of your brain that sets goals. When you try to pay attention to something, your prefrontal cortex goes to work. It is also the part of your brain that thinks ahead about the consequences of your actions.
The ventral striatum
The ventral striatum is where your brain processes rewards. It is located deep inside your head. It also controls your limbic system, which is the part of your brain that processes emotions and memory. Blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum increases in the same way that a cocaine user uses cocaine.
They then see that the ventral striatum is generally less active in the brains of addicts and problem gamblers. Since that is the area of the brain that controls happiness, among other things, it seems clear that gambling and drug use weaken the ability of that part of the brain to do its job.
Gambling clouds reality
Any game of chance, including gambling, can be fun. In fact, most people have visited a casino at some point. When you ask people why they gamble, they usually talk about how fun it is there. Most people are also aware that these are games specifically designed to lose.
However, they are not aware of the fact that the games are designed to activate certain aspects of your brain chemistry. This is to keep you gambling.
One of the characteristics of gambling is its uncertainty, whether it is the size of a jackpot or the chance of winning. The uncertainty of rewards plays a crucial role in the attraction of gambling.
It turns out that your brain rewards uncertainty. Every time you do something that feels right, your brain gets a dose of dopamine. If you feel the release of that dopamine makes you insecure, it motivates you even more to place that next bet.
Your brain reacts even when you lose
It’s not just winning that has an effect on your brain. When you win, it’s obvious: you win occasionally, which releases dopamine, so you keep playing in hopes of winning. However, when someone develops a gambling addiction, losing can release as much dopamine as winning.
After all, because you are so addicted to gambling, dopamine causes you to crave even more action when you lose. This is one of the reasons why compulsive gamblers have so much trouble quitting. Those aren’t the only aspects of the games that cause reactions in the brain.
Slot machines/video poker games have lights and music that also stimulate the release of dopamine in your brain. People have a financial interest in making these games as addictive as possible. Every aspect of a game’s design is tested, including the hit ratio, to make them as attractive as possible.
Gambling triggers a dopamine response. That response eventually causes the part of your brain that feels pleasure to become numb. As a result, you need an ever-increasing amount of dopamine to feel good.