This Tiny Part Of Your Brain Influenced You To Buy A Powerball Ticket

A new study shows gambling could be influenced by a single brain connection

This is your brain on Powerball — Getty Images
Jan 08, 2016 at 7:30 PM ET

Scientists might have singled out the one small portion of your brain that influenced your decision whether or not to buy a ticket for the record-setting $950 million Powerball jackpot that no one won, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Stanford Neurosciences Institute used diffusion-weighted MRIs to study a tract of neurons that connects two different brain regions associated with our comprehension of risks and rewards—anterior insula and nucleus accumbens.

“Activity in one brain region appears to indicate ‘Uh oh, I might lose money,’ but in another seems to indicate ‘Oh yay, I could win something,'” Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and lead researcher, said in a Stanford news release on Thursday. “The balance between this ‘uh oh’ and ‘oh yay’ activity differs between people and can determine the gambling decisions we make.”

No winning ticket was sold for Saturday night’s record-setting Powerball jackpot. The payout for the next drawing could surge to a stunning $1.3 billion by far the largest jackpot in U.S. lottery history. The winning numbers were 16, 19, 32, 34, 57, and a Powerball of 13. To win the jackpot, all six numbers must be correct. There’s a 1 in 292.2 million chance of winning.

Knutson and his team gave 37 subjects $10 to gamble in various games. The gamblers were then placed in an MRI chamber where they could see a roulette wheel as well as the odds of winning or losing on each spin. Each spin cost a different amount of money. As the subjects contemplated their bets, researchers studied their brain activities, paying particular attention to the tract of neurons that connects these two regions of the brain. In each of the participants, they found that those who had a thicker layer of fatty tissue surrounding that tract—indicating a stronger connection between the two regions—made more cautious gambling decisions.

The results, published in the journal Neuro, also suggested that people are most enticed by gambling opportunities that present a smaller chance of winning a lot of money combined with a small chance of losing a little money. There have been few examples in history that fit that description as closely as the current Powerball lottery, which costs $2 for a chance to win.

Knuston said he hopes the study will inspire research on curbing risky behavior through focusing on this area of the brain.