Welcome to my personal blog here at meet4lifesciences.ch. My name is Giuseppe Gonzalez, and I aim to post my thoughts and ideas here for feedback and constructive criticism. My first post is below. Enjoy!
Upon a recent holiday to the United States, I saw a number of things that amazed me. I suppose that is what holidays are all about, but this was my first trip to what I would call a ‘civilised’ country for some time. I’m not saying that I have lived in a ‘bubble’ to date. In fact far from it. I’ve travelled a fair amount given my relatively young age, but due to budget constraints I’ve tended to travel where in South-East Asia, where your dollar goes a long, long way.
And South-East Asia is an amazing country. Not only beautiful, but also enchanting, as well as largely unspoilt. Nevertheless, I digress somewhat. What I’m trying to say, is that my visit to the USA my first grown up holiday, you know, one where I had a few bucks in my pocket and only 2 weeks to spend it. This was certainly a novelty to me. Up until this date the primary focus of any travelling was ensuring that I didn’t run out of funds, and got as much bang for my buck as I could. It was all aboard the ‘Peace Bus’, with a focus on meeting new people and sampling new cultures.
All this had now changed, having recently taken on my first job working for a major pharmaceutical company in London. My friends often described me as a career student, and to some extent they are right. I flew through my degree in life sciences, and quickly followed that up with a 2 years masters degree. For the next 5 years I worked towards my doctorate. Compared to most people I have certainly spent a considerable amount of time in the educational system. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and can thank my parents for both their financial and emotional support along the way. My father has been a constant support to me throughout my life, and in particular in guiding me in the right direction when it comes to a career.
A very successful man himself, my father has always stressed the importance pursuing a career in something that is of interest to you. ‘Don’t worry about the money’ he would always tell me. Focus on what you enjoy. Pursue avenues that interest you and follow these until your heart in content.
During my travels around the USA, I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now, lets be clear, Las Vegas isn’t for everyone, but given my background in life sciences, and my doctorate in psychology, I found Las Vegas both intriguing and intimidating. I spent some time there observing human behaviour, and I found the results of my observations to be extremly interesting, which got me thinking long and hard about the mathematics of gambling, and what is it that attracts visitors from around the world to the Las Vegas Strip and it’s casinos.
Many believe gambling to be an activity ruled by luck, chance and other superstitious beliefs. Yet, there are also others who argue it is all about mathematics. If you look at it from a broader perspective, people who belong to the latter group might be correct. There are several scientific theories that propose random events are not all that “random” and what appears to be results of a set of unrelated arbitrary circumstances are instead actually governed by mathematical algorithms.
However, this does not mean that the results of games of chance are deterministic. Even if they were, analysing the entire process is so complex that it becomes impossible to predict results.
Which brings me on to my thoughts concerning gambling addiction and the brain. The primary goal of winning an incredible prize – both monetary and in the form of goods – gives satisfaction to many people. As the rate of the reward at stake increases, the desire to get it intensifies for the gambler. It is common for people who gamble to exhibit addictive behaviour. It can come to an extent where clients become overly impulsive in placing their bets without minding the consequences that may come afterwards. Without realising it, those who gamble for pleasure usually develops an addiction similar to that which is stimulated by drug use.
In the past, the inability to resist impulses to gamble was believed to be more of a compulsion rather than an addiction, but after my observations in Las Vegas, it became evident to me that this assumption could well be incorrect.
The reason is this. When we engage in certain activities, neurons produce dopamine, giving us excitement and a sense of fulfilment, or what others would call a “high.” When stimulated by other addictive substances such as cocaine, the reward system distributes up to 10 times more dopamine, thus, resulting to drug tolerance.
Such is commonly displayed among pathological gamblers, who crave for an instant access to wealth by ignoring the risks of gambling just to get the much coveted reward. The outcome rarely matters – every win or loss encourages the addicted gambler to play more.
Surveys reveal that around two million people in the US are hooked to gambling. These numbers are higher than ever now that it has become more acceptable and available. Many deem this alarming considering the fact that gamblers and drug addicts share many common grounds.
Further proof shows that brain activity can be altered as an outcome of gambling, as well as drugs. Researchers say that two to seven percent of patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are compulsive gamblers. It is important to note that Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder caused by a lack of dopamine.
Experts have carefully studied and applied methodologies of treatment and prevention so as to not worsen the negative results of gambling. Naltrexone, a medicine for substance addictions has proven to be effective in suppressing brain cells from producing dopamine. Another treatment is the Cognitive Behavior therapy that convinces people to fight back unwanted habits.
Although viewed as a form of entertainment, gambling’s dangers clearly outweigh its benefits. Many observers suggest that since the growth in online gaming, and in particular the poularity of mobile casino games and apps, casino operators and gambling establishments should demonstrate more responsibility by instilling awareness to the public and setting limits for their clients.
As you can see, my time in Las Vegas certainly got my own brain cells working, and led me to look more closely at the brain connection behind gambling. The innate ability to control our impulses signifies good decision-making skills and maturity. Taking control is not easy, especially if it equates to dismissal of habits in which we have become accustomed.
The quest for a better life, however, requires that we master the art of controlling negative practices. This proves to be extremely difficult for those who have been diagnosed with Impulse Control Disorder (ICD), a psychiatric condition which impairs social and occupational functioning of affected individuals by preventing them from being able to resist urges.
Pathological gamblers are considered addicts. Pathological gambling is a recognized type of ICD as it impairs one’s ability to make logical decisions, especially when it comes to spending money on games of chance. But is there a scientific explanation behind it?
During an experiment on gambling addiction, researchers have traced activity in two brain regions: the anterior insula and the nucleus accumbens. They discovered that the thicker the sheath of fatty tissue insulating the bundle (an indicator of the strength of the connection), the more cautious the study participants’ decisions in a gambling test.
This means that a person’s bet appears to be dependent on the balance of activity between both regions, which in turn proves that more than just being affected by psychological factors; pathological gambling is also connected to neurological ones.
What was particularly intriging during my observations in Las Vegas was the impact of near-misses and the resulting impact on the propensity to Gamble. Near-miss occasions are the thin line that separates our successes from our failures. In the world of gambling, near-misses are fairly common, especially for players of games of chance. Almost-wins encourage clients to play more, convinced that victory is imminent.
Gamblers, especially those who are addicted to various forms of gambling are most likely encouraged to invest more time and money when experiencing near-misses, placing continuous bets despite obvious disadvantages.
UK researchers found out that the level to which a person’s brain responds to near misses may suggest the severity of addiction. The study used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in measuring the brain activity of 20 gamblers whose gambling habits range from buying lottery tickets to uncontrollable sports betting. An onscreen slot machine with two spinning wheels of icons was used during the research. When two icons matched, the player earned 75 cents. A mismatched icon was tagged as a loss. However, when the wheels stopped with one matched icon, it was considered a near-miss.
The results revealed that near-misses triggered the same pathways in the brain that were also triggered by wins, releasing the same amount of dopamine and thus setting the stage for possible addiction.
What is clear is that problem gambling has drawn so much global attention recently, and it’s apparent that it is possible to use science to identify problem gamblers. Just like drug addiction, many people are starting to fear the evils that are brought about by the compulsion to gamble – which more and more people are suffering today.
Governments and citizens alike are starting to feel alarmed. Many countries are now taking the initiative to interfere with this problem. The gambling industry seems to be cooperative in this endeavour since many casino business owners have agreed to make transactional data accessible to responsible bodies. According to propositions, these transactional data can be used to indentify distinct client playing patterns and can make pinpointing gambling addicts so much easier.
As you can see, my stop in Vegas certainly got me thinking. Please check back in a few weeks to see my next post!