Understanding the Impact of Gambling on the Brain

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Introduction

Gambling is not a modern invention. In fact, humans have been known to gamble in one form or another throughout much of recorded history, and evidence has even been uncovered showing that humans invented ways to gamble several thousand years ago.

Today, various forms of gambling activities in Canada and many other countries across the world are more popular than ever and accepted by society as a whole. Much of this is thanks to the numerous fully licensed and regulated land-based gaming venues and iGaming sites that people have access to these days.

Most gamblers who spend real money to place sports bets, play casino games, or take part in the lottery do so for the same reason – the thrill of taking part and the possibility of financial gain. Let’s dive straight in to take a closer look at some of the basic science behind gambling, what it does to the brain when we gamble, and the psychological impact of gambling.

The Science Behind Gambling and the Brain

Gambling effects on the brain vary greatly from one human to the next. However, in most people, gambling has an immediate impact on the reward system part of the brain, which is fundamentally driven by a neurotransmitter inside everyone’s brain known as dopamine.

In much the same way that alcohol, narcotics, and nicotine can stimulate the brain, reinforcing sensations of pleasure and connecting them to certain human actions or behaviours, gambling also has the same effect. It’s the same as the effect you get when having a cup of coffee, eating your favourite chocolate bar, or watching your favourite television shows, for example.

When someone wins a sports bet or lands a huge jackpot win in an online casino slot machine, our brains tend to release dopamine, which many have described simply as a feel-good chemical. However, the effects don’t last too long, and the brain ends up craving more.

In other words, people who like to gamble for their dopamine hit will keep on gambling just to try and get that same feeling again. However, repeating the same initial feeling they felt the first time they won is often hard to replicate and not usually achieved.

Therefore, people will gamble just to try and get that feeling again without knowing that their brain’s desire for more dopamine is what is driving them. It’s like when a drug user keeps on taking drugs to try and get that initial feeling they had from that initial release of dopamine.

To show you how popular gambling is in some regions, here is a quick look at a chart that shows us how many individuals in the UK participated in at least one form of gambling over a four-week period from 2019 to 2023:

Psychological Effects on Individuals

People gamble for various reasons, and there can be many psychological effects on individuals who gamble. It can also impact friends, family members and colleagues of the people who gamble, especially if they gamble uncontrollably.

Some people gamble as a form of escapism and to deal with the day-to-day stress life throws at them. Others gamble simply for the thrill of risk-taking that can potentially end in a monetary reward. According to experts, the main types of gamblers are the following:

  • Casual/Social
  • Serious Social
  • Compulsive
  • Relief and Escape
  • Professional
  • Conservative
  • Personality gamblers (which usually involved illegal activities)

Gambling in any form can have long-lasting psychological and physical effects, whether that person prefers placing regular sports bets in the hope of their favourite team winning, betting on red or black in roulette and then watching as the ball dances around the roulette wheel before it finally comes to rest, or spinning the reels and hoping for all five jackpot symbols to align across the reels to win a progressive jackpot.

Gambling sometimes gives people the illusion of control. For example, someone might be experiencing what is referred to as a ‘losing streak’ and believe that it’s about to end soon, that they are ‘due’ for some wins.

Similarly, some people on a winning streak feel as though their luck is about to end and may stop playing, or they will try to ride out the storm until their ‘winning streak’ returns.

The most damaging side effects of compulsive gambling can include depression, personality disorders, increased anxiety, and even an obsessive pathological problem.

Left unchecked and without the proper guidance and support, symptoms like this can worsen, and it can have an extremely negative effect on one’s mental well-being. People who gamble whenever given the opportunity are known as compulsive, pathological, or problem gamblers.

As well as the psychological effects of gambling too much, it can also disrupt their day-to-day life, social interactions, and their careers. Mental health and gambling can be harmonious, provided the operators of licensed gaming venues and websites actively promote responsible gambling.

Gamblers must continue to be educated on what to look out for and be taught how to gamble responsibly. They should also have plenty of support freely available to them if they feel they need it.

Many of today’s online casinos and sports betting sites have a wide range of tools available for players to use that can help them stay in much better control of their spending. Examples include win/loss limits, spending limits, deposit limits (daily, weekly, monthly), session time limits/reminders, self-exclusion tools, and time-out tools that allow players to ‘take a breather’ for up to six weeks.

Signs of Gambling Addiction

Most people only gamble as a fun way to pass the time when they have a little bit of spare money lying around. They are aware of the risks and have no trouble sticking to their budgets or staying in control of their spending. They just want their quick dopamine fix, much like a chocolate bar or cup of coffee can satisfy others.

However, a small minority of gamblers, known as ‘at-risk’ players, find it hard to control their spending, and things can spiral out of control. They may develop gambling problems. They don’t know when to stop, whether they are winning or losing.

The most common signs someone is gambling more than they should are things like having no self-control and being unable to avoid the urge to gamble. They might miss work or other appointments because of gambling, or they might spend money on gambling that should have been spent on other important things like groceries and bills.

A problem gambler may find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. They may also ignore certain responsibilities, loan/borrow, or worse, steal money just to gamble. Another sign that someone is addicted to gambling is increased irritability and denial when confronted with the facts.

Treatment and Support Options

Depending on where you live will often determine exactly what kind of problem gambling treatment and support services are available to you. Some of these non-profit organizations are local to specific areas, whereas others are globally renowned and support gamblers in many countries.

Gamblers Anonymous is one of the most well-known problem gambling organizations. It has branches and treatment centres in many regions where various forms of gambling are legally permitted.

Others include the Responsible Gambling Council, BeGambleAware, GamCare, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Gambling Support BC, and the National Council on Problem Gambling, to name a few.

Organizations like this provide plenty of useful information about identifying problem gambling, with free guidance and support, questionnaires, one-on-one meetings, group sessions, and much more. Their friendly and professionally trained counsellors can usually be reached 24/7 (or possibly during office hours only) via toll-free telephone, email, and even live chat.

Suppose you feel as though you, a friend, relative or colleague, is developing (or has already developed) a gambling problem. In that case, you should seek the outside support of professionals instead of trying to deal with it alone. You don’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone, but doing so can help take a massive weight off your shoulders.