Yesterday’s Here and Now (on NPR) included a fascinating (15-minute) interview of journalist Martha Frankel, who has just published her funny but disturbing autobiography “Hats and Eyeglasses.” From the NPR abstract: “Though she grew up around gambling, Martha Frankel, was largely immune from its lure, until she was in her mid-forties and discovered poker. When she found out she could play the game online, what had been fun turned into an addiction.” You can listen to the interview here.
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[S]cientists have only recently started exploring the gambling mind, actually looking into what happens inside the brains of people like Ed when the dice roll or when the starting gates swing open at the track.
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BERDIK: As far as our brains are concerned, when we walk into a casino all the action starts in our midbrain, in a bundle of neural pathways called the “natural reward circuit.” Whenever we experience something pleasurable, from a delicious meal to a slot machine jackpot, the neurotransmitter dopamine pulses through this circuit.
Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s gambling studies program, says that for most of us, this natural reward circuit is critical for learning and motivation.
FONG: It’s a hard wired circuit that is inside our brains, that is evolutionarily important. Because if we couldn’t experience pleasure or reward, why would we ever do anything, or seek out new experiences.
BERDIK: But for some of us, the natural reward circuit is in overdrive, pumping dopamine, pedal to the floor.
FONG: A lot of pathological gamblers will tell me when they walk into a casino they start salivating, they talk about being in the zone, they talk about having this profound euphoria.
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BERDIK: The notion of a reward circuit gone haywire underlies a lot of today’s research into the biology of addiction. And the kicker is that the neurons in this circuit don’t need an actual reward to get excited. Anticipation is more than enough.
Hans Breiter, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, demonstrated this a few years ago.
He scanned the brains of normal healthy people playing games of chance where a spinning wheel either won or lost them cash. It turned out that the subjects’ reward circuits lit up even before the wheel settled on a number, reacting simply to the prospect of a jackpot.
Gamblers, especially habitual ones, have long talked about the rush. Ed felt it.
ED: The sensation then was like, you know you’re on the edge. It was like skydiving.
BERDIK: As a result, a little winning, just enough to kick start those reward anticipation neurons, can make gambling fun even if at the end of the night you’re down, by a lot.
In his lab, Breiter pulls out a paper comparing the brain scan of a healthy person playing a game of chance with that of a cocaine addict from an earlier experiment in which the subjects’ brains were scanned before during and after receiving an shot of cocaine.
BREITER: In this particular image what you see is a splotch of color on top of a part of the brain. We could not differentiate between the healthy control subject, having the expectancy of a gain, and the cocaine subject having the expectancy of a cocaine infusion.
BERDIK: Breiter’s research shows that in addition to an overactive reward circuit, the brains of people with gambling addiction are different in another way.
When people viewed a spinning wheel with mostly negative numbers, in other words, when they faced a potential loss. The natural reward circuit was much less active, but some parts of the brain were more active, including the orbit frontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us control our impulses, evaluate risk, and make decisions like when to fold a hand in poker. It’s why the orbit frontal cortex is sometimes called “the brakes of the brain.”
This summer, Dr. Fong of UCLA published research in which he compared the brain functions of compulsive gamblers and methamphetamine addicts. He found that both groups display similar impairments to the part of the brain where the orbit frontal cortex resides. In other words, says Fong, for both compulsive gamblers and meth addicts, the brakes are gone.
FONG: The fascinating question is how did these brain changes happen? Were people born this way, or is it possible that just by the act of gambling itself, that somehow people are able to modify their brain functioning and then all the sudden create this condition of pathological gambling.
BERDIK: So while experts say about five percent of the population is at risk for compulsive gambling, how much of that risk is influenced by factors like the proliferation of online gambling or, say, having a glitzy new casino right down the road? Again, Dr. Fong.
FONG: My personal belief is there’s probably a combination here. Where people are probably born with vulnerability, or a biological susceptibility to develop gambling addiction, but unless they are exposed to gambling at an early age, they’re probably not going to develop this problem.
BERDIK: Addiction researchers are conducting clinical trials on drugs to help treat problem gamblers, but no matter what scientists discover those who work with compulsive gamblers say that breaking the habit will always take more than a pill. It often takes major lifestyle changes.
Below we’ve the initial portions of a news article from an Atlantic City news channel, “Compulsive Gambler Files $20M Suit Against Casinos.”
Arelia Margarita Taveras says she was even allowed to bring her dog, Sasha, to the blackjack tables, sitting in her purse.
But her gambling spun out of control: She said she would go days at a time at the tables, not eating or sleeping, brushing her teeth with disposable wipes so she didn’t have to leave.She says her losses totaled nearly $1 million.Now she’s chasing the longest of long shots: a $20 million racketeering lawsuit in federal court against six Atlantic City casinos and one in Las Vegas, claiming they had a duty to notice her compulsive gambling problem and cut her off.”They knew I was going for days without eating or sleeping,” Taveras said. “I would pass out at the tables. They had a duty of care to me. Nobody in their right mind would gamble for four or five straight days without sleeping.”Experts say her case will be difficult to prove, but it provides an unusually detailed window into the life of a problem gambler.
To read the rest of the article, click here. To watch an ABC video about the story, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, go to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice.”