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Mary Sojourner M.A
Mary Sojourner M.A

Mending 5 Romancing the perfect elusive lover: risk and dopamine

She was adorable, gazing into her obsession, murmuring, "Please."

She was young and adorable. I would have guessed her to be 16 had I not known the age limit for the casino. She gazed into the face of her obsession. "Please, baby, please," she said. "I've been so good to you. Be good to me." The woman next to me grinned and caressed the screen of the slot machine in front of her. "You go, girl," she said. "You gotta sweet talk these suckers."

I was above all that superstitious behavior. I knew the realities of the way slot machines toyed with the levels of dopamine in my brain, and I'd read a brilliant article in the New York Times, The Chrome-Shiny, Lights-Flashing, Wheel-Spinning, Touch-Screened, Drew-Care-Wisecracking, Video-Playing, 'Sound Events'-Packed, Pulse-Quickening Bandit; in which writer, Gary Rivlin, dissected the coldly elegant way the casino industry computer geniuses programmed slot machine to take slot gamblers down to "extinction" (the industry's term for extracting every last penny from the player.) So, I didn't murmur to my machine. I didn't run my fingers seductively over its glowing screen. But, two minutes later, when I hit $250. jackpot, I leaned in and whispered, "Thank you, baby."

I might as well have said thank you to my brain, most specifically to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure; what we pay attention to; our sense of well-being and much more. Sounds like the perfect infatuated lover, right? S/he gives us pleasure, focuses on our well-being, pays attention to our every whim and whine. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that surges when an addict uses - doesn't matter whether you're using your sweetheart, a slot machine, on-lie video poker---or crack cocaine. In fact, Dr. Hans Breiter, at the Harvard Medical School, used brain imaging to show the relationship between attraction, gambling and cocaine.

"Dr. Breiter...and his colleagues started with cocaine addicts and mapped the regions of the brain that became activated during the rush (the reward) and during craving. They then did the same for people experiencing monetary rewards and heterosexual men looking at beautiful faces. They found the same regions of the brain were activated in all these cases..." ---The Infinite Mind,

Jackpot! Breiter's study was the first article I read as I dove into five months of researching brain chemistry and gambling addiction. I wasn't surprised to learn that the same neurological systems and transmitters played a huge role in both romance and addiction - especially attraction to unavailable partners. I'd learned thirty years earlier in grad school about the pioneering work of B.F. Skinner and his findings that intermittent and random positive reinforcement will sustain behavior longer than any other schedule of reward. Rivlin's article bore out my hunch that the slot machine computer whizzes were simply following Skinner's simple rules. I learned that gambling commissions have no sway over how the innards of slot machines are programmed, even though they do have a say in percentage of odds in the casino industry.

That afternoon, as I watched the young woman shove twenty after twenty into her cold machine, I thought, not of my own slot addiction, but of the progression of unavailable men in my life---how I had flooded them with sexual attention, great meals, cards, e-mail messages and adoration, with the too easily imagined results. If a man had been a slot machine, and my time, energy and essence had been money, I would have been feeding hundred dollar bills into an increasingly chilly vessel.

But, there was more. I slid another twenty into my own cooling machine and hit Max bet. Of course, I thought, and I never leave an unavailable man till I'm worn-out and so depressed that nothing feels good. I wish I could write that I then cashed out my money and left not only the icy machine, but the casino. You know I didn't. That's the way addiction works. It would be ten years before I would be able to stop. And, I am a true addict, have been from birth. I'll write more about the genetic under-pinnings of gambling (and other) addiction in the next post.

About the Author
Mary Sojourner M.A

Mary Sojourner, M.A., is the author of She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press/ April 2010) and Going Through Ghosts (U.Nevada Press, 2010).