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How Gambling Affects the Brain

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Gambling involves placing a value on a random event with the intention of winning something of equal or greater value. It can range from lottery tickets to sophisticated casino gambling. While most people can enjoy it as an entertaining diversion, others can fall into the trap of addiction. This is known as pathological gambling, and it is now recognised as a disorder that requires medical intervention. The reasons for this are varied, and can include genetic predispositions, changes in the brain’s reward pathways and a lack of control over impulses.

When someone gambles, their brain experiences a ‘rush’. This is caused by the release of dopamine, which stimulates the reward circuit. This is the same circuit that gets activated when you eat delicious food, meet an attractive person or exercise, all activities that are likely to bring a positive outcome. But when you gamble, your chances of winning are much less certain than the other activities listed above.

In fact, your chances of losing are equally as high. This is because gambling is a form of partial reinforcement, which means that you don’t get reinforced 100% of the time. Whenever you lose, your brain tells you that you aren’t winning any more, and this drives you to try again. It’s like flipping a coin: after seven tails, you might be tempted to rationalise that it’ll balance out with a heads next time. But, in reality, each coin has the same chance of coming up heads or tails as any other.

Some people turn to gambling as a way to socialise, escape worries or boredom, or to relieve unpleasant emotions such as grief or depression. However, there are healthier ways to do all of these things, such as exercising, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, and practicing relaxation techniques.

Gambling addiction is also exacerbated by the fact that our brains are more sensitive to losses than gains of equal value. This is why you’re likely to feel a stronger emotional reaction when you lose £10 than you would if you won the same amount. That’s why so many people invest their time and money into trying to make up for previous losses, and end up in a vicious cycle of gambling addiction.

If you are tempted to gamble, start with a fixed amount of money that you’re prepared to lose, and don’t spend more than you can afford to lose. Also, don’t chase your losses: as soon as you think that you’re due for a win and can recoup your losses, stop playing immediately. This is called the gambler’s fallacy, and it’s a surefire way to lose more than you’ve won. If you can’t control your gambling, seek help immediately. You can find details of where to get support at the bottom of this article.

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