Addiction and the Brain

There’s been a huge and growing amount of research into what happens in the brain during addiction – and of habits generally. The research takes place as part of neuroscience. It’s now possible to ‘see’ inside the brain during interaction with electronic machines – including gambling machines.

We aren’t scientists! However, there are experts out there who can communicate well with ordinary folk. We’ll look at a video of a lecture in a moment but first off, some VERY basic and simplified facts about the brain in relation to addiction:

  • The brain contains billions of cells called neurons. They communicate with each other by ‘firing’. A signal passes from one cell to another if there is a chemical called a neurotransmitter between each cell.
  • There are some neurotransmitters you may have heard of. Serotoin is one, and one of the main medication types for depression increases serotonin in the brain. Serotonin has a calminng effect.
  • Another chemical is called dopamine which gives a ‘feel good’ reward. It is part of our pleasure systems. It’s studied a lot in relation to addictions.
  • A substance or behaviour can lead to a dopamine rush. Even anticipating a substance or behaviour can lead to increased dopamine.
  • Unfortunately, too much dopamine can lead to tolerance of a substance or behaviour and the individual needs more to get the buzz. Eventually the buzz may disappear altogether.
  • Yet even when pleasure has gone an addict will continue. In the case of substance addictions such as alcohol this is in part to avoid very negative physical withdrawal effects. But in the nature of addiction the brain has ;earned to behave in a certain way. Neurons have joined together to make ‘pathways’ in the brain which lead to unconscious ‘automatic’ behaviour. The brain has undergone a ‘deep learning’.
  • At the same time, pathways that lead from a part of the brain near the front of the head, which are the control centre or executive, become weakened. The part of the brain that normally controls impulses loses its connection pathways.

These points are talked about in the lecture below. We recommend it because Marc Lewis has also written a book we really rate, The Biology of Desire

Marc Lewis, who’s been through addiction himself, discusses and demonstrates how substance addictions and behavioural addictions such as gambling share common features. He argues that addiction is not a disease but something which a normal, healthy brain learns.


Below is another useful video. Don’t worry about the long names. The important point is that addiction arises from the normal functioning of the brain. This video deals with substance addiction but we’ve already seen that gambling addiction and substance addiction have common origins (which, importantly, is related to why some people may have more than one addiction or replace one with another).

Finally, the emphasis so far has been on the addict. But what if addiction involves more than the person? Elswehere on this site, especially in the section called Addiction by Design?, we look at claims from some researchers that the process of addiction involves the individual and the machine and other factors. This points us back to our main site The Machine Zone which examines how everyday, non-gambling devices, may become ‘addictive’.

The ‘Machine Zone’ is shown above. It’s a central concept in Natasha Dow Schull’s study pf machine gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design


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