Put your Money where your Brain is

The room is packed. Everywhere I looked I could see drinks, banter, and tension filling the room around us. And this event had every right to be packed. This was the Champions League final, the biggest event of European soccer. While European television does a good job keeping most of the ads at the minimum that night, one ad continued to repeat throughout halftime, a simple ad covering a sports gambling service.

One of the largest online sports gambling sites within the EU

While not a complete stranger to the world of gambling, seeing how pronounced these types of services were advertised towards the general public, I opened towards the true prominence of gambling within our society. From small dollar wagers with friends to the million dollar sports matches, gambling has become pervasive within Western culture. Though the prevalence of this activity has made it easy for us to accept it as simply another aspect of the culture surrounding us, it is important to understand that when left unchecked this can easily snowball into something more.

A study conducted in 2012 discovered that chronic gamblers have similar hypoactivity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex to those of chronic smokers (De Ruiler, 2012). As the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex plays an important role in inhibiting our individual actions so that we don’t make any rash decisions when this particular area shows lesser levels of activation it prevents us from stopping ourselves from making impulsive decisions (Modirrousta, 2008). As such, the more we find ourselves gambling, the easier it is for us to become addicted to it since our brain is literally not telling us to stop ourselves. But not only does our brain not tell us to stop with this particular behavior, but it also activates to push us to gamble even more.

A recent study published by Limbrick-Oldfield set out to investigate as to what underlies our desire for continual gamblers to seek out gambling. After cueing the subjects that had chronic gambling problems with images related to gambling, they observed the brain activity of these subjects through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests. When looking at the results of the study, Limbrick-Oldfield found that when the gambling disorder subjects were shown gambling related cues, there was a significant increase in the activity of the left insula (Limbrick-Oldfield et. al, 2017). Prior research has shown that the insula plays a critical role in subjective feeling (Uddin, 2017). So by showing greater activation of the insula within these brain studies, Limbrick-Oldfield was able to show how his subjects yielded a greater emotional connection whenever they are shown cues of gambling. And it is with this greater emotional connection within these subjects that pushing gambling addicts to continue with their addiction.

The insula is located on the lateral side of the brain. It plays a significant role in our subjective emotional processing.

So the question remains, why do we find ourselves gambling in the first place? And the scientific answer to that question is actually very simple because it’s really fun. However, while you expect the fun of gambling to exist in the idea of winning big bucks, scientific evidence actually seems to point to the contrary.

In 2013, Patrick Anselme and Mike J.F. Robinson set out to understand exactly what seemed to motivate individuals to continually pursue gambling. After examining the dopamine release within the ventral striatum of gambling addicts who gambled, Anselme and Robinson found that the subjects had a greater amount of dopamine release whenever they lost money compared to when they won money (Anselme and Robinson, 2013). This idea plays along with the idea of “near misses”, stating that whenever you don’t win, the brain activates the reward system to enhance your motivation to keep gambling (Kassinove et.al, 2001). While this study does a clear job in underlying the major reward system within those who contain gambling addictions, one weakness is that it does not take into consideration whether this reward system pathway pertains to those of first-time gamblers. However, despite this limitation, the paper still offers valuable insight into the cycle of addiction that many continual gamblers fall into.

While understanding of the underlying influences beneath gambling addiction offers great insight towards the neural mechanisms that underlie the development of addiction as a whole, it still circumvents the issue that breaking these kinds of addictions are extremely difficult. Things like alcohol and gambling have long since part of both ours and Parisian culture for a long time coming and breaking that underlying development will go beyond what underlies our own culture.

So what is the main lesson that should be taken away from this? Well, for me, I would say to place your bets wisely, because no matter what you bet, the odds are never in your favor.



Anselme, P., & Robinson, M. J. (2013). What motivates gambling behavior? Insight into dopamine’s role. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 7, 182.


De Ruiter MB, Oosterlaan J, Veltman DJ, van den Brink W, Goudriaan AE. Similar hyporesponsiveness of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in problem gamblers and heavy smokers during an inhibitory control task. Drug Alcohol Depend. (2012)


E H Limbrick-Oldfield, I Mick, R E Cocks, J McGonigle, S P Sharman, A P Goldstone, P R A Stokes, A Waldman, D Erritzoe, H Bowden-Jones, D Nutt, A Lingford-Hughes & L Clark. Neural substrates of cue reactivity and craving in gambling disorder. Translational Psychiatry, 7 (2017)


Kassinove J. I., Schare M. L. (2001). Effects of the “near miss” and the “big win” on persistence at slot machine gambling. Psychol. Addict. Behav. 15, 155–158


Modirrousta, L.K. Fellows Dorsal medial prefrontal cortex plays a necessary role in rapid error prediction in humans J. Neurosci., 28 (2008), pp. 14000-14005


Uddin, L. Q., Nomi, J. S., Hébert-Seropian, B., Ghaziri, J., & Boucher, O. (2017). Structure and Function of the Human Insula. Journal of clinical neurophysiology : official publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society, 34(4), 300–306.





2 responses to “Put your Money where your Brain is

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *