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Wired to Wager

From the choices people make on Wall Street, to online gambling, human beings make many choices each day that require us to take some kind of risk in order to gain some kind of reward. While this is a seemingly natural and popular human action, no scientific studies have been able to understand how these basic “subcortical” regions of our brain help humans to process risk and reward as part of its information processing purpose. However, for many in the online gambling and decision making industries, scientific help is on the way.

The California Institute of Technology has a group of scientists, led by Steven Quartz, trying to solve the question asked by anti- online gambling and online gambling enthusiasts across the globe. The group has put together a simple gambling task, that participants in the study complete while undergoing “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI). The fMRI then finds the areas of the brain that are active during gambling, and the groups findings hope to fish out the gambling function of brain structures, and discovering how these brain activities relate to other functions like learning, motivation and assessment of stimuli.

The group then finished the report and published a research article Thursday, August 3rd, which will not only help online gambling companies know their competition, but also help online gambling addicts become aware of their problems and know how to seek treatment. In the article, published by Cell Press, the research group also stated that more importantly than effects on the online gambling industry, their findings should help gain an understanding and even treatment of aberrant risk taking in a variety of disorders. The experimental methods developed by the research group should help doctors with disorders like bipolar disorder, online gambling addiction and even schizophrenia.

Much like a simple version of online gambling, subjects were asked to choose two cards from a deck numbered 1 – 10. The subjects were asked to place a bet of $1 on which card they thought would be higher. Although not exactly real online gambling, subject's fMRI images during the online gambling tasks showed the specific areas of the brain that were involved in the gambling.

Researchers focused their attention on what they called the, “anticipatory period” between the display of the first card and the second in their online gambling choice. It was during this moment that the subjects could begin to judge their level or risk, if the first card comes up with a high number, subjects could worry that they have lost their mock online gambling game.

The anticipatory period that researchers studied with the online gambling experiment was then divided into two subperiods. Showing humans optimistic nature, the first subperiod lasts for the one second after the first card is shown, and in this period the subjects were expecting reward. However, for the remaining six seconds before the second card is turned players assessed the risk perceived by the value of the first card.

Researchers found it easy to identify areas of the brain associated with either risk or reward, and that these places increased activity with the levels of expected risk and reward. Which explains the rush that many online gambling players feel while taking risks at online casinos.



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