Brain damage can give gamblers an edge in certain circumstances


Coin toss: Heads, you win.
Coin toss: Heads, you win.

Brain hurt can once in a while give gamblers a winning edge, an American study suggests. The researchers take a flier at explaining how and why certain brain lesions might, in some reasons, help someone to triumph through others or through adversity.

The study – Investment routine and the Negative Side of Emotion – published in the journal Psychological Science, renders its tantalising, juicy question into lofty academese. The 5 co-authors, led by Baba Shiv, a promotion professor at Stanford University, ask: "Can dysfunction in neural systems subserving emotion lead, under certain reasons, to more advantageous decisions?"

The team experimented with people who had abnormalities in special brain regions – the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the right insular or somatosensory cortex. Medically, those might be a sign that something's amiss in how the person handles emotions.

Each brain-damaged person got a wad of play cash, and instructions to gamble on 20 rounds of coin tossing (heads-you-win/tails-you-lose, with a couple of added twists). Other people who had no such brain lesions got an identical money and an identical gambling instructions.

The brain-damaged gamblers pretty consistently finished up with more cash than their healthier-brained challengers. The researchers speculate that when "normal" gamblers come upon a run of unhappy coin-toss results, they get discouraged and become cautious – maybe too cautious. Not so the people with brain-lesion-induced emotional disfunction. Encountering a run of bad luck, they plough on, undaunted. And then enjoy a relatively handsome payoff. At least once in a while.

The study notes that this brain hurt side-benefit might once in a while even save someone's life.

They cite the case of a man with ventromedial prefrontal hurt who was driving under adverse road conditions: "When other drivers reached an icy patch, they hit their brakes in panic, provoking their automobiles to skid out of control, but the patient crossed the icy patch unperturbed, gently pulling away from a tailspin and driving ahead safely. The patient remembered the fact that not hitting the brakes was the adequate behaviour, and his lack of fear authorized him to implement optimally."

Shiv has an eye for non-standard ways of exploring human behaviour. He once in a while teaches a course called The Frinky Science of the Mind.

In 2008, he and 3 colleagues were awarded an Ig Nobel prize for demonstrating that costly fake antidote is more efficient than inexpensive fake antidote.

• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable analysis and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize
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