What Does Gambling Do to Your Brain?

Computerized Image of a Man's Head and Brain With a Casino Background

People who claim that gambling isn’t really an addiction because there’s no substance abuse involved make me mad.

The scientific facts surrounding problem gambling are clear:

Gambling causes measurable, objective changes in your brain chemistry.

People think they have a lot of control over their actions and feelings, but the reality is this:

Most of us are at the mercy of hormones in our brains that affect our decisions dramatically.

The emotions you feel are chemical storms going on in your brain. Winning at gambling releases dopamine, which makes you feel good.

That’s the same chemical that gets triggered when you abuse a substance.

The purpose of this post is simple:

To describe what gambling does to your brain.

What Is Dopamine and How Does It Work?

Dopamine is a hormone that your central nervous system uses to communicate from one nerve cell to the other. Scientists call them neurotransmitters, and dopamine is only one type of neurotransmitter in your central nervous system.

And, of course, the brain is the main organ in your central nervous system.

Think of dopamine as one of many chemicals that conveys messages from one cell to another.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that causes pleasure. When you enjoy something – anything – part of the reason is because it releases dopamine.

Dopamine affects how your brain and body handle things like learning, mood, pain, and sleep. It also affects some strictly physical functions like your heart rate, your kidney function, and even lactation.

Closeup of Person's Hands on a Slot Machine

Changes in dopamine levels can cause mental health issues like ADHD and schizophrenia.

But the most interesting thing dopamine affects – at least for the purpose of this blog post – is addiction.

Drugs trigger the release of a lot of dopamine in your brain, making you feel good.

But after you repeatedly use a drug, you grow less susceptible to this sensation, and your body also stops making as much dopamine naturally.

And this leads to gambling addiction.

And it leads to depression when you first give up your substance of choice.

Gambling Triggers an Observable and Measurable Dopamine Response in the Brain

You might think that the only people who suffer from withdrawal symptoms are alcoholics and drug addicts. If that’s the case, you’re way off base.

Compulsive gamblers suffer the same withdrawal symptoms as drug users. Since gambling acts as a trigger for dopamine release, gamblers often feel great – just like someone would if he were on cocaine, for example.

In fact, dopamine is the most powerful neurotransmitter in your body.

And how much extra dopamine gets triggered when you’re gambling?

Imagine 10X the usual amount of dopamine flooding your brain.

That’s why some people can’t stop gambling.

And it gets worse, because you can’t predict when you’re going to get the dopamine hit.

The Brain Forms a Tolerance

It takes time, but once someone has gamble enough, the brain forms a tolerance to the dopamine released by gambling. Drug users experience the same phenomenon.

Basically, think of your brain as having a pleasure reward system. This system gets weaker over time with overuse of that dopamine response.

But you’re still craving that feeling, so you need to take bigger risks to get bigger rewards (more dopamine).

In the short run, you start to crave the thrill. These cravings get harder to deal with over time.

In the long run, most people eventually have to cut back on their gambling because their casino bankroll runs out. Now you have no dopamine release going on, and you start to feel depressed.

For most people, counseling is in order at this point.

Process Addictions Versus Substance Addictions

Someone diagnosed with gambling disorder can’t control his craving to gamble, regardless of the consequences. If you want to see this in action, check out a movie called The Gambler. (Either version, will do, although I like the original with James Caan.)

And these consequences can be far reaching. It can affect your finances, for obvious reasons, but it can also go on to damage your relationships. Eventually it will take a toll on your mental and physical health.

Problem gambling wasn’t even considered a legitimate mental illness until 1980, when it was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. That’s the book the American Psychiatric Association uses to outline mental illnesses.

Problem gambling was renamed gambling disorder and moved to the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders section of the manual in 2013.

This clarifies science’s greater understanding of how similar substance addiction and gambling addiction are.

When it comes to the brain’s responses to gambling, you see the same symptoms as you would for drug addiction:

  • Cravings
  • Highs
  • Inability to moderate
  • Inability to abstain
  • Life problems
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal

Scientists think that addicts, alcoholics, and problem gamblers all probably share similar brains that are somewhat different from a “normal” brain. These abnormalities relate to impulse control and how the brain processes rewards.

What Happens to Your Brain When You’re Gambling?

Remember those old commercials that said, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.”

Those were silly, but scientists are able to see exactly what goes on in someone’s brain when they’re using alcohol or drugs, and they’re also able to see what goes on in your brain when you’re gambling.

They use images of the brain and chemical tests that measure the amounts of neurochemicals in the brain to measure this. That’s 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 is basically the portion of your brain in the front. It controls planning for the future and how your personality works. It’s the goal-setting part of your brain, in other words.

When you’re trying to pay attention to something, that’s your prefrontal cortex going to work. It’s also the part of your brain that thinks ahead about the consequences of your actions.

The ventral striatum is where your brain processes rewards. It’s deep in your brain. It also controls your limbic system – that’s the part of your brain that process emotions and memory.

Man Looking at Pocket Aces Poker Hand

What do scientists see when you’re gambling?

Blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum increases in the same way that it does when a cocaine user takes cocaine.

They also see that, in general, the ventral striatum is less active in the brains of addicts and problem gamblers. Since that’s the area of the brain that controls happiness, among other emotions, it seems clear that gambling and drug use blunts the ability of that part of the brain to do its job.

Gambling Also Distorts Your Perceptions of Reality

Any game of chance, including gambling, can be fun. In fact, most Americans have gambled at a land based casino at some point in their lives. When you ask people why they’re gambling, they usually talk about how much fun it is.

Most people are also aware that these are games that are specifically designed for them to lose.

What they’re not aware of is how these games are specifically designed to trigger certain aspects of your brain chemistry to keep you gambling.

One of the hallmarks of gambling is its uncertainty – whether it’s the size of a jackpot or the probability of winning at all. And reward uncertainty plays a crucial role in gambling’s attraction.

As it turns out, your brain rewards uncertainty. Any time you do something that feels good, your brain gets a hit of dopamine. When you make the release of that dopamine uncertain, it motivates you even more to place that next bet.

Your Brain Eventually Even Starts to Respond to Losing

You’d think that the equation for gambling is simple – you win occasionally, releasing dopamine, so you keep playing – hoping you’ll win.

But when someone develops a gambling addiction, losing can release the same amount of dopamine as winning.

Imagine being so addicted to gambling that you crave even more action when you’re losing instead of just when you’re winning.

That’s one of the reasons compulsive gamblers have so much trouble quitting.

Those aren’t the only aspects of the games that trigger reactions in the brain, either. Slot machines and video poker games have lights and music that also stimulate the release of dopamine in your brain.

Casinos and slot machine manufacturers have a financial interest in making these games as addictive as possible. They test every aspect of a game’s design, including the hit ratio, to make them as compelling as possible.

Conclusion

What does gambling do to your brain?

Mostly it triggers a dopamine response, and it eventually causes the part of your brain that feels pleasure to become numb – requiring ever-larger hits of dopamine to feel good.