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Oh, What A RUSH! The Psychology and Chemistry of Gambling!
When I was a long-distance runner, before my knees gave out and my belly grew to Brobdenagian proportions, I used to delight in tweaking the noses of my more restrained acquaintances by solemnly telling them that I was a drug addict. There would be an inevitable pause, a long silence, as the individual took in this remarkable statement made by one who looked so damned healthy - and then I would quip: "Yep, Iím addicted to my own endorphins." Weíd have a hearty laugh and my acquaintance would go away shaking his head at my little joke. Endorphins, indeed.
In fact, I was addicted to those endorphins, powerful chemicals that the brain releases during strenuous exercise that can soothe sore muscles and take a troubled mind into the nirvana of the fabled runnerís high. When I didnít run I didnít feel like myself. I was often moody and irritable. But when I ran, after five or six miles or so, ah, the world was all butterflies and flowers, nectar and honey, and I was just this feel-good machine pumping and pulsating through the woods. And when I raced in those mini-marathons of ten or more miles, I was chemically back in ancient Marathon, a Spartan gladiator taking on all comers, dizzied by the dismay of my foes and dazzled by my own strength and endurance. I was so alive and my light brightened the world!
Those runnerís years are long past. I now power-walk (at my weight class, itís really called "power-waddling") and look to the casinos for that runnerís high. In fact, I am now convinced that gambling in a casino is every bit as pleasurable, every bit as life enhancing, exhilarating and endorphic as running long distances or racing in mini-marathons. Competitively, you are no longer challenging some skinny accountants who hit the trails in the early morning before hitting their ledgers for the rest of the day. You are no longer facing off against women and men who might never have competed in anything more intense than hunting for the right date for their prom in high school. In short, when you pit your puny self against the mighty casinos, you are no longer squaring off against a mirror image of you as is done in most human competitions. No, when you gamble in the casinos, you are taking on no less than the Olympian gods of fate.
The casinos are literally Nemesis and the sheer dread and joy we mortals feel when running against those gods -- win, lose, or draw -- cannot be understated but must be underscored. Casino gambling is fun the way that sex is fun; the way that good food on an empty stomach is fun; and the way that fine wine to a discerning palate is fun. But it is also fun the way laying waste to the village of your enemies was fun; the way challenging mammoths and saber-toothed tigers was fun; and the way waiting for the exact moment to harpoon that whale was fun. Megabucks meet Ahab!
Please do not discount the fact that psychologically in some atavistic archives of our brains, most casino gamblers are intuitively cognizant of the fact that our current crop of casino games have rich historical antecedents. In the past our ancestors looked to dice to help them ferret out the will of the Almighty and when they "rolled them bones" the well being of their own bones might have very well been at issue. All cards have their origin in the Tarot and while todayís dealers merely divine a simple message (you won that hand or you lost that hand), the dealers of the past divined the very will of the Divine: "Sorry, but the cards foresee that tomorrow Magog seizes the city and decimates your people!"
Yet, we are living in a scientific age and any ramblings about gods and goddesses, fate, free will and divination, must now inevitably wend their way through a Midas-sized maze of scientific research. The scientist says: "Donít tell me that when those prophets fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, that God then gave them visions. They were hallucinating because their brains had been deprived of food and were deteriorating." The mystic has been reduced to the neurochemical and the psychology of winning athletes has been reduced to which one has the better twitch-muscles. So too with casino gambling.
Challenging the gods? Phooey! Here are the facts as our new religion, science, sees them.
According to Professor Marvin Zuckerman of The University of Delaware, a leading authority on the causes and effects of risk-taking in humans, some people are "sensation seekers" who crave "varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences." Gamblers and other risk takers fall into this category. According to his studies, men tend to be slightly more sensation seeking than women, but both men and women tend to peak in their sensation seeking in their late teens and early 20s. In fact, some of this sensation seeking might actually be genetic in nature as studies with identical twins reared apart suggest. Evidently, some of us were born to rattle toys and others of us to rattle dice.
However, while Zuckerman looks to personality traits to characterize sensation-seeking, other scientists are looking at the very chemistry of the brain to discover the source of why one manís exciting craps game is another manís occasion to nap.
According to the latest research, our neurotransmitters -- a fancy term for the host of chemicals that transmit sensations and thoughts within our brains -- are responsible for the excitement and pleasure we experience when we place our money at risk. In fact, they are responsible for the pleasure we feel no matter what we do -- from listening to a symphony by Beethoven to jumping into a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert. In fact, one in particular -- dopamine -- seems to be the Janus-faced master of our pleasures and orchestrator of our pains. When a craps player looks to the heavens and calls upon the gods in that heart-thumping moment between picking up the dice and rolling the dice, what is really taking place is an explosion of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (the primitive pleasure center) of his or her brain. When those dice are released and the point number is hit, the craps player is bathed in the glow of a chemical high every bit as real and every bit as powerful as the runnerís high I used to experience so long ago.
It is not an indictment of casino gambling to say that it is wonderfully addictive in the same sense that running is wonderfully addictive. To paraphrase the great Greek philosopher Epicurus, people should desire to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. Thatís normal. Certainly, casino players know that the casino experience is pleasure personified and that trips to the wonderful world of Dame Fortune send the dopamine flowing through their nucleus accumbens aplenty. Thatís fun.
However, for a small percentage of casino players the rush of dopamine heralds the onrush of personal doom. For these cursed few, casino gaming doesnít bring that "challenge the gods" heady thrill of victory or the "Iíll get you next time, Zeus" agony of defeat; instead, like Cassandra, to these cursed few, casino gaming brings hopelessly self-destructive self-indulgence.
As there is a qualitative difference between sipping a fine wine in a fine restaurant and guzzling gallons of muscatel from a bottle in a brown-paper bag behind a White Castle dumpster, so too is there a difference between the pleasures of waltzing with Lady Luck and the agony of being slam-danced by her. Unfortunately, for the cursed few that genes or Fate have selected, the surge of dopamine is so intense, so pleasurable, so necessary for a sense of well-being that come hell or Noahís flood, they will gamble every penny they have to satisfy the dictates of their appetite for dopamine. Before we shake our heads in disgust, let us realize that this is not so different from those long-distance runners who cannot control their desire to run, run, and run some more. Through shin splints, cartilage damage, blood in their urine, bone spurs and kidney breakdown, some runners become modern-day Jobs, suffering endless torment for a brief brush with the divine -- in this case, their runnerís high.
Although the self-righteous prophets among us might want to burn the casinos in fire and brimstone -- forever preventing those of us who are not sacrificing our children to Moloch to pay for our pleasures - these same prophets might as well ban running. It is in the nature of man -- chemically, psychologically, and, yes, spiritually -- to dare, to push the limits, to gamble on this, that, or the other thing and to ultimately feel damn good about it, too. Itís built into our hearts, itís built into our souls, and, if science is correct, itís built into the very structures of our brains. You can bet on it.