This is Your Brain on Gambling…

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Science Finds Brain Parts that Like the Odds

I’m dating myself with the reference in the title about an old anti-drug campaign (Partnership for a Drug-Free America). We’ve all run out of new things to say anyway and what’s old is new again.

While we search the heavens for signs of intelligent life, we struggle to confirm its existence here on Earth. Fortunately we have instruments that can peer into the darkest recesses of our own brains.

Before we go too far I wish to direct readers to another reference from the 1980’s: Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer J. Adler. Now, I’m no philosopher but I’m thankful Dr. Adler was on the job fixing wrong ideas from the past. I explored the persistence of some ideas in a previous post, (“The Persistence of Bad ideas” December 9, 2016).

I’m offering this aside to provide context for the science that we’re examining today. In his section entitled ‘The Intellect and the Senses’, Dr. Adler wished to fix a problem raised by seventeenth century philosophers John Locke and David Hume. By failing to distinguish between the experiences perceived by our senses and those concepts arrived at by intellect, the philosophers led people to believe the only things we can have in our heads are versions of things that come to us from our ears and eyes.

“In all these statements, two errors are compounded: one is the error of regarding our perceptions and images, miscalled ‘ideas’, as the immediate objects of our consciousness; the other is the error of reducing the human mind to a purely sensitive faculty, able to be aware of nothing but what can be perceived through the senses or can be imagined as a result of our sense perceptions.”

While it’s true we react to sights, sounds, tastes and the pain of handling frayed wires, we are an order of magnitude beyond Bobo the gorilla making finger signs for a banana. We can conceive of, and enact constitutions guaranteeing rights and freedoms, (and undermine them with kangaroo courts mislabelled “Human Rights Tribunals”), and design buildings and machines that can mess up or clean up our environment.

It’s what I take from it and I’m able to cogitate on these and other concepts while craving spicy Doritos

As I pondered my first post of 2017 I came across this article regarding problem gambling. On January 3rd the CBC reported, (“Problem gambling triggers same part of brain as substance addiction.”), the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Gambling Research, used MRIs to show a region of the brain known as the insula, lit up at the very sight of gambling machines. Researcher Eve Limbrick-Oldfield is quoted as saying the insula is a “mysterious and poorly understood part of the brain [but it] has been identified as key hub for craving in past research.”

While the folks at UBC continue to do excellent research into our stupid behaviours, (e.g. buying lottery tickets), I am leery of the conclusion of the article. It suggests naltrexone, an opoid antagonist, might be useful in suppressing gambling addiction.

In the first place our “therapeutic society” insists we treat every misbehaviour and deviance with some sort of chemical, (except the ones backed by wealthy advocacy groups!). The implication seems to be that your bad behaviour isn’t your fault and it’s nothing a little shot of elixir can’t ‘cure’.

In the second place, we seem comfortable pumping powerful chemicals into our brains hoping they will be effective and not offer too serious side-effects. We take drugs to handle one issue only to find we need a third drug to deal with the side-effects of the first two! Recent research suggests there may be a link between taking antidepressants and a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. (Don’t get down over that though. Science could “prove” a link between any disease and any substance if they tried!).

I do not mean to diminish the deleterious effects of problem, as opposed to periodic, gambling, nor the real cognitive issues that may prevent people from leading pleasant, productive lives. I just hope that research into why we do stupid things does not lead to the belief we can administer behaviour drugs to control people…or populations.

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