Receive regular updates via email

The neurophysiology of gambling

If you read my previous post on the neurobiology of risk, you may recall that the ventral striatum regulates risk and rewards. In most people, thinking about winning money increases dopamine in the ventral striatum, and thinking about losing money decreases it. This is where gambling comes in.

This excellent post on the neuroscience of gambling describes a series of experiments done on monkeys that show that dopamine neurons learn when to expect rewards. Dopamine increases when the reward comes, decreases when it’s supposed to come but doesn’t, and wildly increases with unexpected rewards. And unexpected rewards are the principal attraction of gambling.

Instead of getting bored by the haphazard payouts, our dopamine neurons become obsessed. When we pull the lever and get a reward, we experience a rush of pleasurable dopamine precisely because the reward was so unexpected. (The clanging coins are like a surprising squirt of juice [for a monkey trained to expect juice as a reward]. It’s operant conditioning gone berserk.) Because our dopamine neurons can’t figure out the pattern, they can’t adapt to the pattern. The end result is that we are transfixed by the slot machine, riveted by the fickle nature of its payouts.

Thus, the unexpected reward essentially makes the ventral striatum very happy, and it can’t figure out how to become very happy again except by continuing the same behavior that led to it before. And there you are, two hours later, out of money at the blackjack table because you were waiting for that rush.

However, most of us have self-regulating systems in the brain that will eventually tell us that logically, we can’t spend all our money chasing the hope of an unexpected reward, that this isn’t enough of a reward overall, and we get into our cars or onto our flights from Vegas and leave the gambling table and its ventral-striatum-enticing allure behind.

But in pathological gamblers, the ventral striatum doesn’t react the way it’s supposed to (perhaps because the unexpected reward becomes expected?). Riba, Kramer, Heldmann, Richter, and Munte (2008, PLoS ONE) gave volunteers dopamine-increasing drugs and found that not only did the subjects make riskier choices, but parts of the basal ganglia and midbrain, which are important parts of the reward system in the brain, showed decreased activity after unexpected rewards.

As it happens, the dopamine-increasing drugs Riba et al. used were intended to treat Parkinson’s disease. It’s known that such dopamine agonists, as they’re called, can trigger pathological gambling behavior. Riba et al. suggest that pathological gambling–at least in Parkinson’s patients–comes from a need to overcome a dulled response in the reward systems of the brain.

This is similar to the concept of drug tolerance, where regular drug users must use more drug than they previously did in order to get the same effect because their system has become less sensitive to the drug. Essentially, gambling addicts are like any other addict: they don’t get the normal feelings that non-addicts do when pursuing their behavior of choice, so they do it longer, harder, and more in order to achieve the reward they crave.

Addictions – Retail Therapy

We’ve discussed the ventral striatum in this blog before. It’s a component of the brain involved in processing rewards in the brain. When you do something that makes you feel good, it helps to release a positive neurotransmitter such as dopamine.

Scientists believe that this rewards mechanism served an evolutionary purpose in that it helped reward people for trying and exploring the unknown. When the world was full of obvious harm, such a feature was dangerous, but it also helped to develop the drive to explore that helps to define humanity. However, in a modern world, where the wildest place many of us explore is the local mall, such instincts cause problems for us.

Marketing and sales build up products so they take on grand proportions. New and novel, these products play on that ancient brain response, triggering a positive sensation. Some indications link this response to stress relief, which can be addicting in itself depending on your personality type.

Our defense against this is the conscious brain. If something makes you feel good, ask why? Are you buying because of novelty? The tragic part of novelty is that it does resemble drugs. Eventually you build up a resistance, and you require more and different types to break through that resistance. That new novelty often costs more and more to achieve.

Don’t buy for novelty, buy for value and true pleasure, the results last much longer.

Addictions – Fatty Foods

We’ve looked at the addiction to caffeine, but are there other addictions that impact our financial and physical health?

When people are stressed, often we turn to our comfort foods. Foods that might help bring up happy memories, or just ones that we associate with relaxation.

A lot of food companies try to tap into this as well. They use different marketing tools to try and get us to associate relaxation with their chocolate brownie sundae, with their cake, or with any other “sinful” dessert treat that we “deserve”. Each of these treats comes at a cost, both to our health and to our pocketbook. Treats such as these are in excess of our ordinary food budget. A single chocolate bar a week adds up to about $50 per year. Make that a $5 dessert instead, and you’ve spent $250 on food you don’t need.

It’s easy to argue that it is needed. It’s a luxury. It’s something that makes us feel better. Well, some studies have shown that fatty food does in fact create a physiological response in the body that can help to reduce stress. So, you have something that you can eat which makes you feel better. That is definitely the definition of a comfort food, but also something to which you can become psychologically addicted. Why change your lifestyle when you can just eat something to feel better?

Now, the kicker to this is that this same positive feeling can be achieved WITHOUT the comfort foods. Comfort foods are an easy path to the result, but they are one of the many factors leading towards higher rates of obesity. This in turn starts a downward cycle of lifestyle. We then spend money to counter that downward cycle by joining gyms, buying exercise equipment and so on.

So, get out of the cycle. Rather than getting yourself a sundae for your stress, take a walk. Rather than having a chocolate cappuccino, get an extra half hour of sleep! You save yourself money in the short-term AND save your health in the long-term.

Addictions and Money – Caffeine

We all know how the more extreme addictions can ruin lives. An addiction to gambling, hard drugs, alcohol, or anything similar can wipe out a person’s finances and ruin lives. Thankfully, most of us have an aversion to such extremes. However, that doesn’t mean that our less extreme choices can’t have their own bad effects.

Let’s start our look at the field of more innocent addictions with caffeine. When we go after the root of the demand for caffeine, it seems to be in the fact that we (as a society) frequently don’t get enough sleep. Caffeine is the solution to that. It helps us wake up and function in the morning, and provides what appears to be a solution to our tiredness.

This blind spot in our decision making is often supported by medical research coming out in support of caffeine offering some health benefits. However, we all demonstrate a very specific decision making bias when we look at these effects and not at the other impacts of caffeine.

First and foremost is the money factor. Many of us get our coffee from specialty coffee stores. At best you might get a coffee for $2-3, more likely it’s upwards of $5 for your coffee. For the sake of argument, let’s say a reasonable average dollar cost is $10/day. Multiply that by an average of 200 workdays per year (assuming you drink coffee only at work) and you get a minimum of about $2,000 spent on coffee in a single year, which is far from an insignificant sum!

However, as with any addiction, to free yourself from this, you need to look at the factors involved. First is the physical addiction. As mentioned before, we’re a society of people who are incredibly tired, so we turn to caffeine. However, as with any drug, caffeine drinkers build up a tolerance, requiring more and more to achieve the same results. As well, there are withdrawal symptoms. These can include headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating and stomach aches (see more about this). The only real solution to this aspect is more sleep. Breaking caffeine addiction can be hard, but substituting it with a beverage such as water can result in some significant net health benefits. By getting more sleep, you reduce your need for caffeine and at the same time benefit in overall health.

 

Few people view caffeine addiction with the same horror that they view an addiction to hard drugs, but considering that it can cost you thousands of dollars a year and cause a variety of health problems, it’s far from innocent. Contemplate freeing yourself from your addiction to caffeine, your wallet will thank you.