Betting your brain

By SAMANTHA HENIG  |  April 25, 2007

The pleasure of gambling lasts longest when the outcome is most uncertain. If you're playing a game where the odds are stacked in your favor, you won't get the same rush as playing a game where the odds are only 50/50. This was illustrated with a 2003 primate study conducted by scientists at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, and the University of Cambridge, in England. The monkeys were exposed to distinct, easy-to-differentiate images, which were followed, with varying frequency, by a reward: a few drops of fruit juice. Some images were always followed by the reward, while others prompted a reward only some of the time. Those images that prompted rewards exactly half of the time — that is, the situations with the highest level of uncertainty — led to the strongest sustained activation of the monkey's dopamine neurons.

So just how good is that dopamine rush? What would those monkeys give up for a spot at that teasing fruit-juice dispenser, the one that keeps them atwitter in anticipation of whether they'll win or lose? Do pathological gamblers get such a high that it makes their sacrifices worthwhile?

In fact, pathological gamblers don't get a stronger buzz from gambling than anyone else does. Rather, studies indicate they're less capable of feeling good from the everyday uppers that we take for granted. While some people might only need a quick kiss or a warm chocolate-chip cookie to feel good, pathological gamblers need something stronger to maintain a normal baseline of dopamine activity. They turn to gambling to trigger that feeling.

Think of Dan Mahowny, the bank manager played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2003 film Owning Mahowny. The character, based on the true story of Canadian banker Brian Molony, embezzles millions of dollars to support his gambling addiction. When a psychologist asks him to rate on a scale of one-to-100 the pleasure he feels while gambling, Mahowny answers, “100.” When the psychologist asks him to rate his best experience outside of gambling, Mahowny pauses, then responds, "Twenty."

But, as with hard drug use, the high of gambling wears off after a while, and pathological gamblers often need higher and higher stakes to experience the same rush. "It's a hedonic treadmill," says Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.

There's another way that gamblers resemble drug addicts: their lack of impulse control. Gamblers often refer to someone being "on tilt," a trance-like mania following a losing streak, during which the person can't stop anteing-up in a crazed attempt to recoup losses. The fallout from such uncontrollable sprees is often devastating. When Greg Hogan Jr. —  a 19-year-old student at Lehigh University, class president, son of a Baptist minister, and all-around "good boy" — lost more than $7500 in a year of obsessive online poker, he robbed a bank so he could pay off his accumulated debts. Although he knew, even while on tilt, that he had to stop, he couldn't gain control. As he told a New York Times reporter, "The side of me that said, 'Just one more hand,' was the side that always won."

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