This week on Quirks and Quarks, the national science radio program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there a fantastic segment on the neurology of gambling — sticking the heads of gamblers in fMRIs and having them play games of chance illuminates an awful lot about why our brains make us gamble. It turns out that the reward system that lights up when we get a near-miss in a game of skill (which makes sense) gives us the same reward when we have a near-miss in a game of chance (but only if we get to make a choice in the game, such as picking our lotto numbers, even though this has no influence over the outcome of the game).
One of the mysteries of gambling is that even when we should know we're going to lose, we somehow think we're going to win. Dr. Luke Clark, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, may have discovered one of the reasons why. Using MRI, he studied brain activity in people gambling, looking particularly at "near misses" in which a loss seems close to a win. He found that the brain activated the same reward system that is activated in a real win, despite the fact that people report that these near misses are unpleasant.