A lot of research is done to understand gambling addictions, problematic gambling, and related topics. You might think this research is solely there to give governments ammunition to propose bans and restrictions, as they’re more than willing to regulate gambling. Unfortunately, opinions and results differ among different researchers, and sometimes results might even contradict. Different research areas further complicate things. Where a social scientist might analyze gambling behaviors as they come up in the family or studies the environment where gambling takes place, a neuroscientist would look at the brain chemistry.
There’s a good chance these different fields of research have more in common than only their interest. However, the neurological approach seems most convincing in explaining our gambling behaviors, not just inside of a casino, but also when you’re playing the newest NetEnt slot from the comfort of your own home.
Your brain plays a key role in literally everything you do. When you raise your arm to pull the lever that sets the reels on a slot machine in motion, moving your hand started in the brain. The same goes for walking, chewing, and all other activities. Something else that’s regulated in the brain is your mood, and whether or not you feel happy. In order to ‘decide’ your mood, your neurons are constantly communicating by firing small electrical currents back and forth.
Neurotransmitters aid the communication between neurons by delivering messages from one cell to another. There are a lot of different types of neurotransmitters, all of which have an identifiable function. The two most important neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin. If that sounds interesting, make sure you also read our article on the brain of gambling addicts.
Dopamine is often collegially referred to as the happiness or pleasure hormone. Your brain starts making dopamine when you’re engaged in activities that deserve a reward. This means that when you hit three bells on the slot, you don’t just hear the coins hit the metal cup below, but you also physically feel a rush of pleasure, thanks to the brain’s production of dopamine. According to scientists, it’s that wave of pleasure, more than the actual winnings, that keep you playing – you’re starting to chase the rush.
Serotonin, the other relevant neurotransmitter, seems a bit more complicated than dopamine. This, too, is a hormone that can make you feel happy. To simplify the difference, you could say that dopamine is triggered by situations outside of ourselves, like when the roulette ball lands in just the right spot.
Serotonin, on the other hands, could be viewed as a hormone triggered by internal factors. When you overcome your initial fear of entering a busy casino hall, it’s serotonin that makes you feel good after you’ve taken the first few steps. Nervousness is quickly replaced by a happiness – serotonin at work.
Your brain is always active, even when you’re sleeping. This means the amount of dopamine and serotonin is always fluctuating. After a big win at the poker table, your dopamine levels will be higher for a while. And just as easily, dopamine and serotonin levels can be lower than average.
When this levels dips below a certain point, it is referred to as a deficit. Such a deficit can be temporary, and lead to minor problems such as a bad night’s sleep. But a prolonged deficit can have significant effects. A dopamine deficit can lead to amenia, eating disorders, and shaky limbs. A deficit of serotonin might lead to burn-out, depression, and low self-esteem.
According to research, the rush of dopamine and calming effects of serotonin can both collide and amplify each other. Too much dopamine combined with a lack of serotonin leads to feelings of depression. You should aim to keep dopamine and serotonin well-balanced.
Most processes in your brain (and their outcomes) happen without your knowledge. When you get your first Blackjack win of the night, you don’t tell yourself that “it’s time to make some dopamine”. It’s a process that your brain automatically starts.
Still, you can influence these processes and their effects. Drug and alcohol users are very aware of this. It’s not just narcotics and taking away inhibitions that can alter your dopamine and serotonin levels; you can also regulate it by adapting your situation or your diet.
Drinking coffee temporarily increases your dopamine and serotonin levels. This quick rise drops just as fast after you drank your caffeinated beverage. But regular coffee drinkers get used to the rises. This explains the headaches that office workers often experience in the weekend – their brain is experiencing withdrawals from the caffeine.
The omega 3 fatty acids you find in salmon rises your serotonin levels. Unlike the effects of coffee, this rise doesn’t crash a little while later. And not only do the effects wear off much slower, there are also no negative side effects to the lowering serotonin levels. Researchers are getting more and more knowledgeable on how different products affect your dopamine and serotonin levels, but there is also a lot of misinformation around.
In earlier articles, we mentioned that researchers view dopamine as a key component to understanding addictions. The simplified explanation someone feeling this rush of happiness, caused by the sudden influx of dopamine in the brain, wants to get that same rush again and again. Because the feeling is normalized, the stimulus for getting similar effects need to increasingly get stronger to reach the same rush.
This is why people keep using more and more alcohol, nicotine or other substances. In gambling, this translates to continuing until you’ve got a big win – or raising the betting amount to get the same rush.
The practice of gambling addictions is naturally more complicated. That’s why there’s not already a single, definite answer to the problem of gambling addiction. The brain chemistry and how dopamine and serotonin also has more ifs and buts than we’ve laid out above. Your body has many processes that work simultaneously and all affect how you feel and react. In a stressful situation, you’ll start making adrenaline – a process that trumps every other hormone.
And dopamine and serotonin are just two pieces of a larger puzzle. They’re interesting, but depend on other processes, which are in turn affected by different causes and effects. One example is a research report that came out recently, where eating chicken was touted to raise your serotonin levels. Peer reviews were quick to point out that yes, those effects were there, but the effects you’d feel were negated by other, stronger hormones.
As we have mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s important to read research reports with a critical lens, especially when it’s reported in the media. Keep that in mind when you’re going through the research mentioned below. The first research below inspired this article; the researchers prove that dopamine and serotonin interact when gambling. Together, they amplify the behavior known as ‘chasing’: continuing play to make up for losses.