Betting your brain

You just think you’re going to win
By SAMANTHA HENIG  |  April 25, 2007

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It's no surprise that it feels good to win money. Sometimes, though, just trying to win money feels almost as good. If you've ever laid down $10 on black-17 or scrawled some team names on a March Madness bracket, you know how your heart pumps and your adrenaline surges even before you're declared a winner. It's not just for money that people gamble; they gamble for the anticipation of money, and the high that accompanies it.

Like other frequent gamblers, Tim Knauf, a Boston University graduate now working in Boston, knows that gambling’s payoff goes beyond the chips in your stack or the quarters clanging from a slot machine. It's the rush — that euphoric feeling as you wait for the dealer to lay down the perfect card, or hold your breath hoping the third cherry will click into place.

"I think the best feeling is when you're actually at a table at a casino with a bunch of people you don't know. You've got the chips in your hand and they're heavy and you can play around with them," says Knauf, who gets the same rush from gambling that he used to get when he played quarterback and wide receiver for his high-school football team. "You've got some power; you want to push people around a little bit, get in their heads. And there's always the possibility of winning some money. . . . It's a pretty good feeling."

Of course, for some, the thrill of gambling is so great that it's worth throwing away relationships, forfeiting life savings, or facing big, burly loan sharks named Tiny, just to stay in the game. Those are extreme cases; but even for a casual gambler like Knauf, who logs on to online poker sites in his spare time and drives out to Foxwoods with friends every few months, gambling is mostly about the rush.

So what accounts for the titillation of Texas Hold ’Em and the buzz of blackjack? What is going on in our bodies to make these high-risk exploits so pleasurable, even when the reality of a loss can be devastating?

The answer lies in the brain — in a particular area neuroscientists call the pleasure center. Scientists have a much clearer idea now of how the brain responds to gambling than they did 20 years ago, thanks to the development of “functional” magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Unlike previous MRI technologies, which took static pictures of the brain, functional MRIs can record the brain in action. By measuring blood flow to different areas in the brain, fMRIs allow scientists to see, in real time, which areas are triggered during a given activity.

"For a long time, people thought that behavioral addictions didn't exist, or weren't as powerful as being addicted to drugs or alcohol," says Christine Reilly, executive director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders, based in Medford. But fMRI technology, she says, introduced new physical evidence of just how strong behavioral addictions can be.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , University of Cambridge, Lehigh University, Health and Fitness,  More more >
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