Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

gambling1.jpg

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This Part of Your Brain Makes You Fall for Casino Tricks

• April 09, 2014 • 10:01 AM

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists may have figured out which part of the brain makes us think we can win roulette. It’s part of the same knot of neurons linked to love and hunger.

It’s not just the scintillating lights, absent clocks, and free-flowing booze that coerce you to continue the irrational act of gambling—against all odds—on chance-based games when you visit Vegas. New research suggests it’s also the bedeviling work of a prune-sized hunk of gray matter that’s folded deep inside your cerebral cortex.

The insula is a small part of the brain, but it packs an emotional punch. It helps us feel some of our most powerful feelings, including love, anxiety, and hunger. Patients who damage their insula can experience these emotions and cravings in unusual ways. And that makes them highly sought after for trials by scientists—researchers who want to understand how this slice of the neuron pie affects our daily lives. High-profile research published seven years ago, for example, showed that these patients had an easier time than others in kicking cigarette addictions.

The insula is a small part of the brain, but it packs an emotional punch. It helps us feel some of our most powerful feelings, including love, anxiety, and hunger.

Neuroscientists also want to know which parts of the brain are responsible for the gambler’s fallacy. That’s the bank account-draining delusion that the outcome of one spin of a roulette wheel can affect the outcome of the next. This fallacy can keep us optimistically glued to our sticky casino chair. It convinces us that we can enrich ourselves by throwing chips on one color or another as the croupier grabs the roulette wheel—we think we’re seeing a pattern where there is nothing but randomness. The fallacy also misleads us into mistaking a near-miss on a slot machine as a sign that we’re close to hitting a jackpot.

British and American researchers simulated gambling games with patients whose brains had been injured in different ways. They also ran the same experiments with neurologically healthy subjects. They measured how outcomes of roulette and slot machine spins affected gambling decisions, such as whether a mock gambler was motivated to try their luck with another round.

They found that insula-damaged patients had a wallet-shielding immunity to the gambler’s fallacy—one that was lacking in everybody else.

When playing a slot machine, a near miss made most of the test subjects want to try again. This irrational response was “selectively absent in the insula group,” the scientists write in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And when the ball in the roulette wheel landed on the same color several times in a row, most of the gamblers threw their hypothetical chips onto the other color, mistakenly thinking that color’s time was overdue. Again, “the insula group did not manifest this avoidance of recent outcomes,” the researchers write.

The findings could help lead to a cure for problem gambling.

“If insula damage abolishes gambling distortions, then we expect the insula to be hyperactive in problem gamblers,” says Luke Clark, a co-author of the study who lectures at the University of Cambridge’s psychology department. “We’re testing this hypothesis in an ongoing study. If true, this would open up new avenues for treating gambling addiction by reducing the insula hyperactivity.”

John Upton
John Upton is a science journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.