How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?

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A man entering bank card details on a laptop at a desk with an overlay of a neon brain diagram.
BetMGM Jun 17, 2024, 3:00 PM

Some people love to shop, some love to eat, some to play sports, and some love to gamble. Whatever your favored pastime, everyone is driven by the same thing — the “feel-good factor” — that stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine. If you understand what the activity does to the brain, in this case, how gambling affects the brain, then you’ll be better equipped to manage your online gambling habits and how much time you spend playing online casino games.

The Physiology of the Brain

The brain, which is essentially made up of the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum, is a complex organ that ultimately controls behavior and emotions. Given its physiology, some people are more predisposed to gambling than others. In serious pleasure seekers, including gamblers, the prefrontal cortex shows decreased activity, resulting in a reduced capacity to exercise self-control that may lead to a compulsion to gamble. 

If there’s a deficiency in brain reward pathways in the ventral striatum, people will often seek out reward-based activities that gratify them. So in answer to the question, “Why do people gamble?” for many, it’s not about the money; it’s about the way their brain is wired.

When people undertake an activity that stimulates the production of dopamine, they feel good. All the activities this blog has mentioned — shopping, eating, and gambling, among others — have the capacity to do this, so people go back to those activities again and again to replicate that feeling.

But dopamine is like any chemical, natural or artificial. If it’s overused, people build up a tolerance and have to use more and more to get the desired effect. This is when any activity becomes something to which people can become addicted. 

Moderation from the outset of any activity can help avoid addiction later down the line. 

Why People Gamble

It’s not only brain activity that makes it enjoyable for people to play casino games online. Sometimes external factors send people looking for some gambling dopamine, so these can also contribute to how gambling affects the brain.

Some gamblers are seeking refuge from mental health issues, others an escape from everyday stresses. Some are under peer group pressure or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Youthful enthusiasm, before the brain is fully developed to manage logic and emotion, is often a driver of gambling or compulsive behavior. None of these are healthy reasons for gambling, and seeking professional help is a good idea.

The best reason to gamble is that it’s fun and can be rewarding. And it’s not only the win; it’s also the near misses that keep players going. The feel-good stimulus when you nearly hit the jackpot is the same as the win. Or maybe you’ve always believed that if at first you don’t succeed, you should try again.

How the Brain Affects Behavior

This blog has discussed how certain brain chemicals drive certain behavioral patterns. If you know what triggers those behaviors, then you’ll be better able to modify them, especially if they are detrimental to your health or your luck. Gambling’s effects on the brain include invoking the gambler’s fallacy — when players deceive themselves into believing that what has happened in the past can determine the outcome of something in the future. For example, if your poker dealer has dealt you an ace in every one of your last five poker hands, it doesn’t signify that you will be dealt one in the next game, but the gambler’s fallacy leads you to believe that there will be an ace in your next hand. 

Looking for patterns that don’t exist and making predictions that are impossible rather than acknowledging that gambling is random is another effect that gambling has on the brain. Casino online betting is all about randomly generated numbers, so all you can do is weigh up the odds each time you gamble. Bringing cognitive bias to the table is allowing the brain to create reasoning where there is none.

Cognitive Benefits of Online Gambling

When it comes to the effect of gambling on the brain, it’s important to understand both sides of the coin. While there are real dangers to ignoring the signs of problem gambling, there are a few cognitive benefits of playing online casino games as well. 

  • Sharpening decision-making and strategic thinking: Playing casino games online often demands quick thinking and adaptability to keep the upper hand in changing scenarios. Players learn to assess risks, analyze odds, and make quick, strategic choices in real time, which can translate into better cognitive agility in daily life.
  • Memory and concentration: The nature of online casino games demands attention to detail and the ability to remember various rules and strategies for each game. This mental exercise can improve memory and concentration levels, providing a workout for the brain.
  • Emotional regulation and stress relief: There are also psychological benefits to online casino gaming, including emotional regulation and stress relief. For players who practice responsible gambling, casino games can be a good way to unwind. As players focus on the game, they can experience a state of flow, temporarily distancing themselves from daily stressors and achieving a sense of relaxation and mental clarity.
  • Social interaction and connectivity: Online gambling platforms also offer a social component. Through interactive poker rooms and some live dealer or multiplayer casino games, players can interact with like-minded individuals, enhancing their social skills and creating a sense of community. This connectivity can contribute positively to their mental well-being.

Gambling, like any other activity that brings joy or excitement, can have its place in your life (when done right). It can be a source of entertainment, a way to unwind after a long day, or even a means to socialize with friends. However, while there are several alluring online casino game benefits, it’s important to remember that moderation is key. Players should remain mindful of the time and resources that they dedicate to gambling.

The allure of the game, the suspense of the bet, and the potential for a win can be thrilling, but it’s crucial to stay grounded. Recognizing the signs of problem gambling is vital. If you find yourself constantly thinking about the next bet, chasing losses, or gambling beyond your means, it might be time to take a step back — whether for a short period or a more permanent solution like self-exclusion from online casinos. Remember, gambling should add to your life, not take over it.

Gambling is meant to be fun, not a source of stress or financial strain. By staying informed, setting limits, and being aware of your behaviors, you can enjoy gambling responsibly and keep it as a positive part of your life.

Managing Your Behavior

The brain is a highly adaptable organ and, like a muscle, can be exercised and trained to respond to your “instructions.” By consciously changing their behavior, players can change their brain activity. By managing your time online, your expectations, and biases, you can avoid gambling taking over and controlling you.

It’s important to always practice responsible gambling, but if you believe you have a problem, it’s important to seek help.

Exercise Your Brain at BetMGM

If you’re ready to have some fun and release a healthy dose of dopamine, register at BetMGM for a number of live dealer casino games, online slots, and more. And remember, no one can predict the outcome of any game of chance, but what you can manage, now that you know what to look for, is how gambling is affecting your brain.

Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.