Cincy Science: Bracket busted? There's a reason sports betting gets us hooked and keeps us hoping

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our "Cincy Science" feature, we talk with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.

Perhaps you’ve already lost your NCAA bracket challenge at work. Or, you’re still disappointed because you’re down $10 for picking the Broncos in the Super Bowl. And yet: You live in hope: Maybe you can win big on the Kentucky Derby in May. If this scenario sounds familiar, you're not alone.

According to the American Gaming Association, there was about $380 billion in illegal sports betting events in 2012. That same year, only one percent or $3.5 billion was wagered in Nevada, the only state where sports wagering is legal.

Odds are, we like to bet on sports

To delve into the brain chemistry behind betting behavior, we turned to Dr. Mark Bardgett, Northern Kentucky University Regents Professor of psychological science. He's also director of NKU's nterdisciplinary Minor in Neuroscience and specializes in brain science and related behavior.

1. What in terms of brain chemistry makes up want to bet on sports?

There are certain brain regions that become more active when we feel pleasure. When somebody wins a bet they get money. The brain regions become much more active when they receive the money or when they know they’ve won the money.

For instance, when you’re watching the TV on Saturday night, you may look for the winning lottery numbers. If your numbers show up and you win, there’s about two or three distinct brain regions that become active at that point. And presumably, either that activity signals we want something or we feel good about what’s occurred.It’s not just the brain regions in humans; the same patterns have been studied in rats and mice, as well as a number of other species.

Become a WCPO Insider to read the full Q&A about why betting makes our brains feel good. And learn how the behavior of pigeons--yes, pigeons--make help scientists understand why we want to wager.

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