How Gambling Affects the Brain


Gambling is the betting or staking of something of value, with consciousness of risk and hope of gain, on an uncertain event whose outcome may be determined by chance or accident. People gamble for a variety of reasons: a desire to experience subjective excitement and arousal; the prospect of winning monetary rewards; or relief or escape from unpleasant emotional states. Some people are unable to control their gambling behaviour, leading to harms in personal, social, vocational and financial areas of life.

A growing body of research indicates that problem gamblers exhibit cognitive distortions that are similar to those associated with drug addiction, and can lead to a range of detrimental effects on themselves and others. These include financial problems, family discord, legal issues, loss of employment and relationships with loved ones. Several types of psychotherapy can help with these problems.

One area of research that has uncovered the underlying psychological processes driving pathological gambling is brain imaging studies. These reveal that certain regions of the brain become excessively active when people engage in recreational gambling. Another area of research that is revealing new insights into the nature of gambling disorders is behavioral therapy. This aims to change the way in which a person thinks and feels about gambling, and includes strategies for handling stress, finding other ways to spend time, and improving self-control.

Dr Luke Clark, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, has been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure patterns of brain activity in volunteers as they perform a gambling task. He is interested in the different ways that humans over-estimate their chances of winning, including the effects of near-misses and personal choice. These features of gambling games promote an illusion of control, the gambler’s belief that they can exert skill over a game that is actually defined by chance.

These illusions of control are particularly pronounced in young people. Until they reach the age of 25 – the average age at which the human brain matures – they are more susceptible to reckless behavior, and they also find it easier to develop good and bad habits. This is why it is so important to educate children about the dangers of gambling and how to avoid them.

Other factors that influence gambling behavior include the learning association between gambling and positive monetary reward expectancies, as well as the hedonic (pleasurable) reward that is associated with the experience of losing money. It is believed that these two factors are the main drivers of problem gambling.

Researchers have also found that the brain responds differently to watching other people gamble compared to participating in gambling yourself. Specifically, watching other people gamble activates an ‘empathy’ circuit that values the same outcomes as your own, and a separate system that values only your own results. This might explain why you feel so much sadness for the losses of other players, but not their wins. It may also explain why you feel so motivated to play for longer when you see a big win on the screen, but not when you are experiencing a large loss.