Our brains are naturally configured to get pleasure out of some of the things we do. That’s why we survive.
Pleasure drives us to hit some crucial day-to-day goals, such as finding and eating food.
But the system as a whole is more complicated than that; it’s not all about tangible rewards.
We can spend an awful lot of time pursuing a pleasurable experience that is far from “mission critical” — like discovering how a piece of machinery is assembled, or nutting out the pattern to a sequence of symbols.
This kind of puzzle can be frustrating, but the pleasure of eventually solving it spurs us on — and crucially, our brains process the anticipation of that understanding as a form of pleasure.
Chemically, even though we’ve done nothing useful, this is the same reward we get for achieving a survival goal.
And it’s that anticipatory pleasure pathway which goes into overdrive when we gamble. It can lead us to a place that addicts call “the zone”, where even winning the jackpot is a distraction from the game.
A well studied, very ingrained system
Dr Charles Livingstone, a gambling researcher from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, says the brain’s method of producing these rewards has a lot to do with two well-known forms of psychological conditioning.
The first is operant conditioning — made famous by psychologist BF Skinner in the 1950s.
Skinner experimented with pigeons, and noted that they would readily peck at a spot if they were rewarded with food. Crucially, the reward was not given at every peck; that allowed Skinner to investigate what he called the “schedule of reinforcement”.
“If you give them a predictable set of rewards, then they lose interest quite quickly; if it’s unpredictable, they tend to establish behaviour which is very hard to extinguish.”
The second manipulation is called classical conditioning — discovered way back in the 19th century by Anton Pavlov. He found that feeding a dog, and associating that food with a sound, meant that the dog would eventually salivate at the sound alone.
According to Dr Livingstone, gambling machines wrap together both types of conditioning: they offer rewards at unpredictable intervals, and they pair those rewards with encouraging noises and lights.
This was originally published by ABC.net.au.