Absolutely, Gamblers become literally “brain washed” by their own chemical reactions. This is due to the Dopamine Addiction that the gambling stimulates and persists.
The Cocktail of Drugs inside a Gambler’s Brain
Here is a visual representation of the different chemical interactions and the jobs they perform.
It’s easy to see how a Gambler displays radical mood swings due to their dopamine addiction.
Quick Chemistry Lesson
The brain is a chemical supercomputer that learns and rewires itself based on its rewards and perceived rewards. It has a number of unique characteristics that have ensured our survival over millions of years.
Noradrenaline mobilises the brain & body for action. It reaches high levels during situations of stress or danger, in the so-called fight-or-flight response. In the brain noradrenaline increases arousal & alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation & retrieval of memory, and focuses attention. It also increases restlessness, anxiety, and increases heart rate & blood pressure.
– is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward & pleasure centres.
– helps regulate movement and emotional responses.
– enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.
Normal people get rewarded with Dopamine when they get creative or productive:
- Discovering new things
- Listing down small tasks & ticking them off
- Listening to music
- Exercising often
- Establishing a streak (maintaining a productive task on an ongoing basis)
Note that the brain releases Dopamine when the reward is simply anticipated. This is massively important, as the gambling brain rewires itself based on what it thinks it will win, rather than historically what it has lost.
In tests on pathological gamblers subjects literally start to salivate at simply watching a video of gambling.
This is like Pavlov’s dog, who was trained to salivate when it simply heard the bell for food, even though the food had not appeared yet.
– Is a chemical nerve that cells produce and sends signals between your nerve cells.
– Mostly present in the digestive system, but also found in blood platelets & throughout the entire central nervous system.
– Helps regulate your mood naturally. When your serotonin levels are normal, you feel:
- more focused
- less anxious
- more emotionally stable
The Changing Brain of the Gambling Addict
There is no longer anything remotely normal about the production & regulation of Adrenaline, Dopamine & Serotonin.
The chemical manipulation starts way before the first bet.
Just thinking about going gambling will start the release of the various chemicals in the brain. This follows the old patterns (neural pathways) and re-enforces them.
And once the first bet is placed, those original feelings surge like a tsunami as memories of wins and associated patterns of significance are recalled into the mind & body.
- Adrenaline is released and their heart starts to pound with the ancient ‘Fight or Flight’ response. But the Gambler finds this danger challenging, exciting & exhilarating and never runs the other way. It’s part of the excitement.
- MASSIVE amounts of Dopamine/Serotonin are released washing over the brain over the course of the gambling session. This session might last anything from a few minutes to a few hours to an entire day to several days.
- Cortisol (stress hormone) is also released as the gambler loses, and attempts to get more wins (Dopamine) to make the feeling go away.
Unable to Walk Away
The gambler is literally brain-washed with these hormones and all reason goes out of the window. They will gamble their entire months wages, without even the bus fare to get home.
In fact during this process the frontal lobe nearly shuts down, impairing the brain’s ability to decide that enough is enough. So they can’t even walk away.
These symptoms are identical to crack/crystal meth addicts. The gambling session usually only stops when the money runs out. Or when the gambler is unable to obtain money by some other means (ie. raid other accounts or borrow/sell/steal something etc).
That kind of behaviour seems insane to a normal person. But to the gambler’s mind it is normal, as their circuits have rewired themselves as a result of their gambling experiences.
Dopamine Addiction – Evolution Hijacked
The brains’ ability to re-wire itself through learning is known as “Plasticity.”
Neural Plasticity is one of the features in human evolution:
- Without survival instincts we wouldn’t know to run from a bear
- Without a reward system humans wouldn’t be motivated to hunt or pro-create
This cycle reinforces the existing neural pathways and makes them deeper.
So with each new gambling session, the chances of the gambler making a different choice next time gets less & less.
Watch this brilliant 5 minute video which summarises some a lot of what is going on:
The Gambling-Dopamine Hangover
Once the gambling has stopped, the Adrenaline & Dopamine roller coaster is replaced with the heavy feelings of Guilt & Fear. Reality bites.
The gambler panics. They cry. Feeling the fear of being found out, they experience massive stress of not being to pay bills or debts.
The gambler comes out into the cold light of day or turns off their device. Realising they have made the problem worse not better, they are in a bigger mess than before. Desperate.
After a long gambling session the gambler may not have eaten for a long time. Their blood sugar will be low. So they need another hit to bring them back up, like sugar or alcohol. They will certainly avoid other people and will turn off their phone.
He or she will vow to return as possible and chase back their money, or vow never to gamble again.
But their gambler brain is wired to follow the same established pathways. Consequentially the person is unable to see their promise through, even with the best intentions in the world. It is their current programming of they way gambling has wired their brain circuits.
Can brain research overcome the effects of dopamine addiction?
Neuroscientists are actively pursuing the creation of drugs that block the learning induced by dopamine addiction.
However, they have had limited success. It is difficult to create a drug the blocks that learning without also blocking other functions of dopamine, such as feeling alert, motivated and happy.
So for the moment seek help in the ways that are proven to work.