What goes wrong in the brain chemistry of a gambling addict.
Catherine Townsend-Lyon, 53, started gambling excessively when she was 30. As a result, her 40th birthday wasn’t much of a celebration: She was hospitalized, shortly after a suicide attempt. She’d tried to slit her wrists the day she’d missed her best friend’s funeral, after stealing money from her job at a credit service to play the slot machines.
That was just one part of how bad it had gotten. She would arrive at casinos at 7 a.m. and wear bladder control underpants. She didn’t want to have to get up—even for a quick bathroom break—if she was on a winning streak. At one point she hoped to win back enough money to stave off foreclosure on her home.
“It’s where I could find stress relief,” she says of her gambling, which she detailed in a book titled Addicted to Dimes. “I didn’t have to worry about anything—whether it was my past, whether it was the money I’d spent. You don’t think about any of it. It’s like you just go there and you’re escaping into a whole different world,” she says.
Gambling addiction stands out for its destructive power and pull. With substance problems, people can blame the chemical activity of drugs and argue that addiction occurs when repeated exposure physically alters the brain. But gambling causes life catastrophes that are at least as extreme—sometimes more—without any kind of foreign psychoactive chemical getting under the skin, indeed, without any apparent “substance” at all.
“First you get that euphoric feeling, that rush and excitement,” Townsend-Lyon says, “Once you become addicted, then you get to the point where you don’t care about anything. You’re in a zone and you don’t realize what’s going on around you.”
The high is in expecting an outcome, desiring it, imagining it, not in its fulfillment.
Problem gambling is addiction stripped to its core—compulsive behavior that persists no matter what the negative consequences. Compulsive gamblers risk their homes, their cars, their children’s college funds, their jobs, even their lives in what looks to everyone around them like completely willful, selfish, and utterly destructive behavior.
Understanding why and how gambling can become compulsive is to recognize that all forms of addiction are a form of aberrant learning. But addiction doesn’t primarily affect the kind of learning we associate with school, or with studying for tests and trying to memorize theorems.
Instead it involves changes in deep emotional learning, the sort of learning that makes first love far more memorable than algebra or verb tenses. From a neuroscientific perspective, learning is a brain change that associates experiences with each other and affects behavior. A critical part of emotional learning is changes in brain circuitry that respond to reward and punishment and link them with actions and the environment.
The best way to see addiction may be as a learning disorder—one that occurs when punishment or other negative consequences no longer deter the addictive activity. As Yale researcher Jane Taylor and her colleagues explain in a review paper focused on substance addictions, these conditions “enhance positive learning and memory about the drug while inhibiting learning about the negative consequences.”1 Brain scans of compulsive gamblers suggest that the same processes are at work.2
In Townsend-Lyon’s case, her gambling persisted despite terrible financial losses, despite losing all her friends and becoming depressed enough to attempt suicide more than once. She describes losing jobs because her gambling began cutting into her workday. “When it was the worst part of my addiction, I was going before work, I was going at lunchtime, I was going after work. It was outrageous. I was just so out of control.”…