3 MIN READ | Mental Health

Simona LeVey

How the Brain Responds to Gambling

Cite This
Simona LeVey, (2022, January 1). How the Brain Responds to Gambling. Psychreg on Mental Health. https://www.psychreg.org/how-brain-responds-gambling/
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Whether it’s a good meal, the use of drugs, or gambling, all three actions, no matter how different, have an impact on the human brain. Similar to the consumption of drugs or eating, the brain becomes active when a person enjoys participating in a game of chance. Sports betting operators, who constantly publish up-to-date tips for gamblers, as well as gambling operators, know that gamblers run the risk of becoming addicted. This article explains when this risk is increased and what happens in a person’s brain when it is confronted with a game of chance.

A topic in the field of neurobiology

It is a frequently discussed topic in the field of neurobiology, where explanations of how the human brain reacts to the exceptional state of ‘gambling’ have been manifested. The procedure that takes place in the human brain can be reduced to a comparatively simple denominator: Happiness is a desirable good. The mere idea of being lucky in a game already causes the release of dopamine and serotonin – and that lifts the mood and makes people happy.

Happiness is stored as a feeling of well-being or rather firmly anchored with the trigger: the game of chance. The brain quickly remembers that gambling makes me feel good, makes me feel happy, and makes me want to have more and more of this feeling. At this point at the latest, the alert reader recognizes the first parallel to classic addictive behaviour. Once this experience has written itself into a person’s brain, like on a hard disk in a computer, it is difficult to undo this impression. There is no delete button in the human brain. Instead, this process is called conditioning in technical jargon.

The principle of conditioning links two stimuli closely together

Conditioning refers to the automatic connection in the brain that occurs even though the initial stimuli do not actually go together. The most famous example of conditioning is the dog experiment of the inventor Ivan Pavlov. He discovered – after he had fed his dogs always after the operation of a bell – that the animals began to drool not only at the sight of the food but already after the ringing of the bell.

A similar experimental setup has already been used in humans. An abstract image was combined with the scent of vanilla – and it worked, as can be read here. As a result, it is possible for a gambling operator to literally eat its way into a gambler’s brain; with a melody, a color, or some other detail. Often, this stimulus conflation already happens during the demo run, the first free spin, or the first bonus award.

Dopamine and serotonin: how the happiness hormones work in the body

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a messenger substance that is often mentioned in the same breath as serotonin and noradrenaline. Whether the body experiences a lack of dopamine or a dopamine high, such as gambling, a release of dopamine is always followed by a consequence for the body, mind and spirit. Consequences can come from the release of dopamine in numerous forms. However, one consequence, in particular, is important for the operators of online casinos: the promotion of the feeling of happiness. Since the messenger substance dopamine is also closely related to the learning processes in the human brain, the risk of evoking an addiction is increased at this point.

Serotonin is also a happiness hormone and a messenger substance; just like dopamine. Although serotonin has effects on the cardiovascular system and even the gut, the effects on the brain are most significant. Serotonin is used to cure mental illness. The mode of action there is relaxing, motivating and antidepressant.

The young brain forms connections faster

The young generation in particular is becoming a target group and a risk group in equal measure. They have an agile brain that is eager to form new connections. The brain region known as the prefrontal cortex is the centre for impulses, their control, planning and the ability to prioritise. This brain region is a true late bloomer, as it is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Until then, especially in the technically quite affine group of young people, the online casino can creep into the brain just as quickly as the betting office.

The part involving impulse control is particularly dangerous. An adult brain with no prior exposure to gambling has the ability to react in a reflective and level-headed manner. A young brain that has already been conditioned to the fact that feelings of happiness bubble up in the online casino also has the risk of the unfinished brain region in addition to this feeling – impulsively, people then gamble and gamble and gamble in the online casino.


Simona LeVey did her degree in psychology at Tel Aviv University. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.


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