How to change gambling habits. How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling - Scientific American

Shirley was convicted of stealing a great deal of money from her clients and spent two years in prison.

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If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine. Carry around an index card, and each time major league draft slots feel the cue — a tension in your fingertips — make a checkmark on the card.

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The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. If you snack for a brief release, you can easily find another routine, such as taking a quick walk, or giving yourself three minutes on the Internet, that provides the same interruption without adding to your waistline.

Mandy never realized that a craving for physical stimulation was causing her nail biting, but once she dissected the habit, it became easy to find a new routine that provided the same reward.

From Genius to Madness

Say you want to stop snacking at work. More than three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs— a piece of Nicorette, a quick series of pushups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax — makes it more likely they will quit.

And a few studies suggest that some people are especially vulnerable to both drug addiction and compulsive gambling because their reward circuitry is inherently underactive—which may partially explain why they seek big thrills in the first place. Researchers think that in some cases the resulting chemical influx modifies the brain in a way that makes risks and rewards—say, those in a game of poker—more appealing and rash decisions more difficult to resist.

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At the same time, neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex weaken. The cues and rewards stayed the same. In the summer offor instance, a year-old graduate student named Mandy walked into the counseling center at Mississippi State University. When stimulated by amphetamine, cocaine or other addictive drugs, the reward system disperses up to 10 times more dopamine than usual.

Now researchers agree that in some cases gambling is a true addiction. It was the Golden Rule: Once I start, it feels like I have to do all of them. And its techniques lay bare one of the fundamental principles of habits: Over the decades researchers noticed that a remarkably high number of Parkinson's patients—between 2 and 7 percent—are compulsive gamblers.

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Just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue ever riskier ventures. With the exception of Hawaii and Utah, every state in the country offers some form of legalized gambling. She played blackjack almost exclusively, often risking thousands of dollars each round—then scrounging under her car seat for 35 cents to pay the toll on the way home.

Medications used to treat substance addictions have proved much more effective. In the s, while updating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSMthe American Psychiatric Association APA officially classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder—a fuzzy label for a group of somewhat related illnesses that, at the time, included kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania hairpulling.

In what has come to be regarded as a landmark decision, the association moved pathological gambling to the addictions chapter in the manual's latest edition, the DSM-5, published this past May. A gambling addict may be a huge source of revenue for a casino at first, but many end up owing massive debts they cannot pay.

Marc Lefkowitz of the California Council on Problem Gambling regularly trains casino managers and employees to keep an eye out for worrisome trends, such as customers who spend increasing amounts of time and money gambling.

In some experiments, virtual cards selected from different decks earn or lose a player money; other tasks challenge someone to respond quickly to certain images that flash on a screen but not to react to others. That was the first time she gambled.

Addictive substances keep the brain so awash in dopamine that it eventually adapts by producing less of the molecule and becoming less responsive to its effects. She was so embarrassed around her friends that she kept her hands in her pockets and, on dates, would become preoccupied with balling her fingers into fists.

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But as soon as she began doing homework or watching television, her fingers ended up in her mouth. Continue with the index card, but make a check when you feel the tension in your fingertips and a hash mark when you successfully override the habit. Only the routine person with gambling problem. Research in the past two decades has dramatically improved neuroscientists' working model of how the brain changes as an addiction develops.

She had tried to stop by painting her nails with foul-tasting polishes or promising herself, starting right now, that she would muster the willpower to quit.

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Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Further evidence that gambling and drugs change the brain in similar ways surfaced in an unexpected group of people: In the middle of our cranium, a series of circuits known as the reward system links various scattered brain regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure and motivation.

The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting habit. And today you do not even need to leave your house to gamble—all you need is an Internet connection or a phone. Back then, Shirley's counselors never told her she was an addict; she decided that for herself.

Various surveys have determined that around two million people in the U. As they talked, though, it became clearer that she bit when she was bored.

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She knew how many times it occurred during class or while watching television. Four in five Americans say they have gambled at least once in their lives.

A German study using such a card game suggests problem gamblers—like drug addicts—have lost sensitivity to their high: The therapist put her in some typical situations, such as watching television and doing homework, and she started nibbling. And of those who do, up to 75 percent return to the gaming halls, making prevention all the more important. In other words, the more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.

As a consequence, addicts build up a tolerance to a drug, needing larger and larger amounts to get high. Her fingertips were covered with tiny scabs. Ultimately, Shirley bet every dime she earned and maxed out multiple credit cards. She rewarded herself with a manicure, but kept using the note cards. Whereas experts used to think of addiction as dependency on a chemical, they now define it as repeatedly pursuing a rewarding experience despite serious repercussions.

The biting habit had damaged her social life. The Habit Loop The Golden Rule of Habit Change says that the most effective way to shift a habit is to diagnose and retain the old cue and reward, and try to change only the routine. In the past, the psychiatric community generally regarded pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction—a behavior primarily motivated by the how to change gambling habits to relieve anxiety rather than a craving for intense pleasure.

When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. Resting just above how to change gambling habits behind the eyes, the prefrontal cortex helps people tame impulses. Lots of people bite their nails. Unfortunately, researchers estimate that more than 80 percent of gambling addicts never seek treatment in the first place.

Around a decade later, while working as an attorney on the East Coast, she would occasionally sojourn in Atlantic City. She came back a week later with 28 checks. Opioid antagonists, such as naltrexone, indirectly inhibit brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby reducing cravings. The decision, which followed 15 years of deliberation, reflects a new understanding of the biology underlying addiction and has already changed the way psychiatrists help people who cannot stop gambling.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. A new understanding of compulsive gambling has also helped scientists redefine addiction itself. One habit had replaced another. At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Gambling addicts may, for example, learn to confront irrational beliefs, namely the notion that a string of losses or a near miss—such as two out of three cherries on a slot machine—signals an imminent win.

By her late 40s, however, she was skipping work four times a week to visit newly opened casinos in Connecticut. He urges casinos to give gamblers the option to voluntarily ban themselves and to prominently display brochures about Gamblers Anonymous and other treatment options near ATM machines and pay phones.

Do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, or a way to socialize?

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These insights come from studies of blood flow and electrical activity in people's brains as they complete various tasks on computers that either mimic casino games or test their impulse control.

If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself: