Skip to Main Content

Gambling and the malleable brain

Main_1984x808_JCH_Inside-Gambling.jpg

He’d hear the familiar bells and whistles and coins jingling and know that his favourite Fire Dragons machine was going to pay out soon. It was going to happen any time now.

ReSPIN speaker Stuart McDonald spoke at several events during Gambling Harm Awareness Week about his physical response to gambling triggers as he chased elusive wins on the pokies. But as he fought his way out of the cycle of panic, shame and self-loathing exacerbated by alcohol and drug use, as well as mental ill-health, he was able to gradually get some critical distance from this drive to gamble by ‘urge surfing’. As if he was a spectator rather than a participant, he would observe his urges as they rose and fell without responding to them, feeling attached to them or identifying with them, until they passed him by.

…he was able to gradually get some critical distance from this drive to gamble by ‘urge surfing’.

It’s an example of neuroplasticity – the brain changed by gambling has the capacity to change further, and through learning and new experience, the urge to gamble can lessen and even disappear.

Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, a neuroscientist from the University of Melbourne, described the brain as malleable and mouldable in a presentation during the Gambling Harm Awareness Week ‘Gambling harm is complicated’ event.

‘When we have a gambling win or even just expect a win, the brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine,’ he explained. ‘As the player comes to associate gambling with pleasure, mere anticipation may be enough to raise dopamine levels. But when we gamble often, our brain gets used to the dopamine, which makes that winning feeling difficult to achieve. Consequently, we may have to gamble more and more to feel the same level of pleasure.’

‘But when we gamble often, our brain gets used to the dopamine.’
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath

Stuart was triggered by the lights and sounds of pokies because they make the user feel like a win is imminent. That rush is an encouragement to keep gambling to try to recapture that ‘winning’ feeling.

‘But most gambling isn't like sport or academics,’ continued Dr Horvath. ‘It doesn't matter how hard you try or how much you practice, the odds won't change. In fact, some gambling products, like pokies and roulette, are specifically designed to trick your brain and make you feel like you're winning, even when you're not.’

This is when gambling stops being ‘fun’ and becomes a compulsion – getting sweaty, heart racing, a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach.

‘It doesn't matter how hard you try or how much you practice, the odds won't change.’
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath

This was territory also covered by Professor Dan Tubman, Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point and Professor of Addiction Studies and Services at Monash University, in the Gambling Harm Awareness Week event ‘Behind gambling harm: neuroscience and comorbidity factors’.

‘Even near-misses or almost-wins recruit areas of the brain that usually respond to wins and increase the desire to play more,’ he said. ‘There’s an overestimation of how often you’re winning and the lights and sounds increase that excitement.’

On the other hand, Professor Tubman extolled the benefits of the increasing awareness of treatment and recovery. ‘Depictions of recovery can increase belief in the effectiveness of treatment,’ he said.

‘Depictions of recovery can increase belief in the effectiveness of treatment.’
Professor Dan Tubman

In the words of Dr Horvath, ‘Nobody is stuck. We can all be helped.

‘It's important to understand how gambling affects you because the more you understand, the easier it is to change,’ he said.

‘As a person gambles more and more and more, the brain will start to adapt until we reach this habit level. Once we start changing our thoughts, our behaviours, our actions, our brain can change out of that pattern.’

Dr Horvath clarified that the brain doesn’t stop changing after adolescence or in our 20s but changes throughout our lives, adapting to the demands we place upon it.

‘Brain changes can help drive an addiction but new learning and experience can further change the brain and help pull us away from an addiction. I think one of the most important things to recognise about addiction is even though it is reflected in the brain, it is not stuck in the brain,’ he said.

As Stuart found, the urge can be observed until it fades away.

There is no claim that the path is easy, but it is possible.

Learn more about how gambling effects the brain