How Gambling Affects the Brain


Gambling is the act of betting something of value on an event that relies on chance, such as a roll of dice or a spin of a roulette wheel. There are many forms of gambling, from lottery tickets to casino games and sports wagering, but all involve risk and a prize. It is a common pastime, and can often lead to addiction.

Those who gamble do so for different reasons. For some, it is for entertainment – they enjoy thinking about what they could do with the money they win or how winning will change their lives. For others, it is a form of socialising with friends or an activity they like to do on their own. Some people may be able to control their behaviour and stop gambling, but for others, it becomes a problem.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of gambling addictions, such as genetic predispositions, negative social and family influences, and peer pressure. It is also important to remember that gambling is a form of risk, and it is possible to lose more than you put in. Some people also have irrational beliefs that they can control their gambling, such as believing that throwing the dice in a certain way or sitting in a particular spot will increase their chances of winning. This type of behaviour is known as a cognitive distortion and can be an early warning sign of an addiction.

Studies of brain function show that when a person starts gambling, the reward centre of the brain gets activated. This is a response similar to the reaction caused by taking drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. However, it is important to note that unlike drugs, gambling does not require ingesting any chemicals and therefore, it does not have the same addictive effect.

The other factor that can contribute to a person developing a gambling disorder is the psychological process of partial reinforcement. This is a well-known motivational theory, where a person will continue to engage in an action that will only provide them with a positive outcome some of the time. This is because they believe that they are able to control their outcomes, and are motivated to make up for past losses or reduce their feelings of disappointment or frustration by gaining a win.

While most people can walk away after playing a few rounds of poker or putting a few coins in a slot machine, some do not, and this is what constitutes pathological gambling. This is an impulse control disorder, and was moved into the addictions section of the Psychiatric Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 alongside kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (hair-pulling). It is not yet known what causes it, but it is believed that changes in the way the brain sends chemical messages might be involved. Some researchers have even suggested that it might be a form of addiction, but this is still under investigation.