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Neuropsychology of Poker (2) - Serotonin and Mood
IntroductionIn this article
- How emotions affect your Game
- What the happiness hormone is
- Why a permanently healthy serotonin activity
is not only important for poker
Today is going to be a great day. You will wake up at the time you planned to, eat a healthy, high energy breakfast and work positively, with focus and discipline. Not just today, but tomorrow as well and the day after that too. In fact, for the entire week and the next one, creating an unbreakable pattern. What a great feeling that thought must conjure.
If only life as an online poker player was so simple and balanced. As you know, this level of discipline and fortitude is difficult to achieve in your line of work. Fortunately, your resilience can overcome any obstacle, even if it means battling your own physiology to become, if you will, a super you.
The effect of emotions on the game
What is our overall objective as poker players? To consistently achieve the greatest potential profit by formulating the highest expected value decision, and to implement that decision objectively. It is the latter portion of this goal that brings us here today.
You have trouble remaining objective and preventing your emotions, mood and physiological influences from infiltrating the objectivity of your poker play. You should know that you are not alone. Most poker players suffer from the same afflictions, but fortunately you can take steps to lessen the frailties of this human condition. Let’s start now.
I will begin by being objective even though I do have a vested interest in the potentially inspiring effect of this article. You will probably never stop tilting. At some point in time in some hand, you will tilt. In remaining objective though I can tell you that you can, with effort, drastically reduce the frequency and severity of your tilt. The question is: how?
In his witty and highly recommended book “Elements of Poker”, Tommy Angelo highlights the two differing forms of tilt.
“Hard Tilt” refers to the emotional responses that have us spewing chips in an uncontrollable frenzy of tension and stress.1 If you have ever flung your mouse at the wall, you were probably suffering from hard tilt.
Factors unrelated to emotion such as fatigue, hunger and restlessness are all types of “Soft Tilt”.2 This article will focus on soft tilt and specifically the factors relating to one of the main neurotransmitters in the brain, serotonin.
The “happiness hormone”
You may have heard of it: the “happiness hormone”. Serotonin has been the topic of much debate in the last few decades. More dramatically in society, it has also been the focus of many drug companies. SSRIs or serotonin reuptake inhibitors allow higher levels of serotonin to be active in the brain, thus potentially elevating a person’s mood. But why? How does serotonin make you feel happier and how important is it in your daily life, both on and off the tables?
It is a little known fact that 80% of serotonin is actually in your gut, regulating your intestinal movements, only 20% of your supply exists in the brain. When you understand more about the role of serotonin in your physiology, that titbit of information starts to make a lot more sense. This hormone primarily mediates the perception of your resource levels relative to your survival needs and to that of others.
Your food consumption, material satisfaction and social ranking are all “resources” that influence the levels of serotonin in your brain. When you eat certain foods, serotonin is released, elevating your mood to one of gratification. Nutrition is not the only relevant spectrum; social resources have a similar influence. If you maintain a wide and supportive social network and have a good standing in it, this also raises the serotonin levels in your brain so you feel positive and satisfied.3
If you have ever been in the middle of a poker session and started to feel exhausted, chances are serotonin has something to do with it, as it appears to be the primary mediator of soft tilt. Not only does it affect your mood, but also your appetite, sleep and memory/learning. This highly important neurotransmitter is very likely the reason why you are not learning as quickly as you would like, or why you insist on repeating the same mistakes without improvement.4
Before showing you how to increase your serotonin levels and decrease soft tilt, you first need to understand how serotonin influences your brain and poker play.
Serotonin could be at the root of why you continuously repeat the same mistakes, especially if you do so with malaise and a slight indifference. To ‘unlearn’ and change a punishing response when initially, that response was a rewarding one, is thought to be a function of serotonin.5 This is an extremely important mechanism for playing successful poker, and it is also highly abundant.
All too often a player is rewarded for making an incorrect play, one which will surely fail to show an aggregate profit. The player might even hard tilt as a result, but that is a subject for the next article.
What is important here is that this player may very well continue to make the same decision in the future, and perhaps even be rewarded for it again. Even though this play will not show positive expected value in the long-term the initial positive response gained from making the play begins a reward circuit connection in the brain, and with repetition this connection will get stronger.
The inability to learn from or care about mistakes is an abundant characteristic in players we consider to be fish. But you are not a fish, and as such, you strive to make the best play, regardless of the short-term outcome. Unlearning and relearning are highly important, essential skills.
In a recent study, the serotonin activity cells of rats were blocked, preventing serotonin from being released into their brains. As a result, these rats were less sensitive and responsive to punishing events. They were less able to change the behaviour that fostered their punishment, and were thus more likely to repeat their mistakes.6 You, of course, are not a rat, though you are a mammal. Still, surely your highly developed brain cannot be so susceptible to this physiological nuance? Think again.
Lack of Serotonin
Only a small group of cells in your brain are capable of releasing serotonin and, if hindered, you will feel the effects lower levels of serotonin bring.7 As mentioned above, included in these nuisances is inability or slowness when altering a punishing behaviour, especially if the same action has produced positive results in the past. This concept is even more significant when considering that your poker play can lower your serotonin levels, even if you are making correct decisions.
Losing in poker, regardless of whether you made the correct decision or not, lowers your serotonin levels. Consistently losing shows a significant drop in serotonin levels in brains during games of risk.8 Just as serotonin is increased by higher levels of perceived resources, it is also lowered when your resources decrease. This resulting decrease is significant and not only because it can hinder the learning process. Lower levels of this very important neurotransmitter result in a subsequent decrease in behavioural inhibition.
Put more simply, the lower your serotonin levels, the more difficult it will be for you to prevent yourself from undertaking an action that you deem to be incorrect.9 The more you lose, the more you stand to lose because it will be more difficult for you to make the right decision or, more accurately, stop yourself from clicking the mouse at the wrong moment. And it doesn’t quite end there. Lower levels of serotonin effect more than your time on the poker table. The effects extend into your general life and can have a profound, indirect influence on all its aspects.
A drop in serotonin activity is also associated with breathing and sleeping difficulties, and often both at the same time. The exact circuitry is not really important here. What is significant is that drops in your serotonin levels will hinder your sleep, as well as your energy levels.10
Surely you have noticed when feeling down, that you have trouble falling asleep or maintaining a healthy sleep through the night? This increases fatigue on the following day and perpetuates the problem by increasing the potential for you to make incorrect decisions and lower your serotonin levels even further. It is one reason why it is generally recommended that you take a day off after a bad day or a short, bad streak. The benefits are very real and very quantifiable. Suboptimal levels of serotonin will hinder your sleep cycle and make it difficult to maintain your A game.
Warding off fatigue is not the only important reason to get adequate sleep. Sufficient sleep is necessary for optimal mental and cardiovascular health. When shut-eyed, your body also re-builds muscle and strengthens neural connections. This is significant, as a very important stage in memory formulation is thought to occur while asleep. In fact, it is theorized that one reason humans dream is to make sense of information and recent events. Further, it is during sleep that the body wards off a lot of toxins.
To ensure a healthier sleep, drink milk before bed, abstain from caffeine past the afternoon, cut down the alcohol (alcohol makes it easy to fall asleep but increases wakefulness during sleep), stop the intake of nicotine, which is a stimulant, and exercise (more on exercise later). Of course, sleeping well also fosters healthy serotonin activity.
Healthy levels of serotonin help you in many direct and indirect ways. You have already learned that this hormone promotes learning and changes in behaviour to ensure continuous improvement. The positive aspects of healthy serotonin levels are also self-perpetuating. A more positive mood increases the potential for more positive and healthy social relationships, fostering even greater boosts in serotonin. This has the added benefit of motivating you towards more social experiences and more diverse ones at that, steering you away from material things as a source of comfort.
You or someone you know may consistently shop because it makes them feel better. Poker players can have a lot of disposable income at a young age, and investing may not be the primary goal on your mind. As explained earlier, serotonin release is related to perceived resources.
When you purchase that jewelled watch, or that flashy new car, serotonin is released as a result of this resource availability signal. It might even grant you admiration from your immediate social surroundings and boost your perceived social resources as well. Generally though, these types of purchases actually foster more envy and negative social energy than admiration. More importantly, this material serotonin boost only has a short-term positive effect, but a potentially long-term negative one.
Our evolutionary ancestors probably could not care less about the differences between a Honda and a Mercedes. They were more concerned with acquiring essential requirements, such as food and warmth, as well as maintaining social relations for genetic repetition.
Enhancing your social life can have a more significant and long term positive effect on your serotonin levels. Perhaps, playing those extra five hours a week to afford a nicer car is not a sufficient trade-off when that time could be spent with a loved one or dedicating some time for a charity cause.
It has also been shown that exhibiting positive emotions and agreeableness increases social support, and subsequently the perception of readily available social resources, thus boosting serotonin further.11 Relying on material things for short-term serotonin boosts can make it more difficult to achieve the same increase in the future, as your gratification threshold will increase.
Buying a $1000 dollar watch might make you happy for a few months, later however you might require a $3000 watch to achieve the same mood elevation. Social interaction is very inexpensive however, and can foster profound and significant long-term serotonin increases. But social dynamics are not the only way to promote healthy serotonin activity.
Bananas do not increase your serotonin. Unfortunately, this commonly held view is a myth. Bananas do in fact contain serotonin, but it is not of the type that can cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. There are substances you can ingest to increase your serotonin however.
There is an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which exists in some meat and dairy products, as well as some vegetables (amino acids, by the way, are essentially the buildings blocks of proteins). Tryptophan is known to have a strong influence on the activation of serotonin. But there is a problem: foods high in tryptophan generally have a hard time boosting serotonin because it is a relatively inactive amino acid compared to the other amino acids also existing in those foods and competing for absorption into the body.12
What you should look for are foods which specifically have a high tryptophan yield relative to other amino acids. Chickpeas and corn are a couple of good examples, especially considering there are strains bred to have high tryptophan yield. In fact, a cross-national study was conducted using a strain of corn which has this genetic characteristic. A significant negative correlation was found between the consumption of this corn and homicide as well as suicide rates in that region. Tryptophan seems to lower depression and aggression in society.13 This is very likely due to its influence on Serotonin levels in the brain. Thus, the importance of mediating this hormone cannot be stressed enough.
There are tryptophan supplements, although they are illegal in some countries as this amino acid is actually considered a drug in its pure form. You probably should not worry, but you would be wise to be cautious if attempting this remedy. Tryptophan raises your insulin levels. Insulin is the body’s way of regulating your blood sugar. However it is a system that requires consistency. If thrown off balance dramatically and over a period of time, there can be detrimental effects.14 Still, diet is not the only way to boost your serotonin levels.
Exercise also increases serotonin levels in the brain. It is still uncertain whether it is the motor activity itself which leads to more neurotransmitter firing (as is the case with dopamine which will be discussed in the following article), or whether it is the fatigue at play. The latter theory is that when you exhaust the body’s cardiovascular system, the availability of tryptophan increases because BCAA is diminished. BCAA is a naturally occurring chemical that inhibits tryptophan.15 Exercise promotes a strong and healthy heart, which is paramount to living a happy and profitable life.
If it has not yet become glaringly apparent, the mechanisms and behaviours that characterise you and your health do not function independently. Your diet will affect your sleep and sleep influences your diet etc. To keep it simple, health begets greater health and action fosters more action, a phenomenon which will be discussed in greater detail when you encounter dopamine and the energy motor pathways in article three.
Exercising, socializing and maintaining a proper diet will make you a happier, more productive and more objective poker player. But you already knew that. Now you know why, and hopefully will start making changes to boost your serotonin levels. Not only will this effort render you a more profitable poker player, but as you have read, it will also help you become a more healthy and positive member of social groups and society in general.
We are just beginning to scratch the surface of your brain on poker. After all, as someone whose name I cannot remember said in a book I cannot recall, “knowledge is one thing, its separation into parts is confession to human weakness.” I am guilty of this weakness, and implore you to continue on your journey to psychological well-being and poker profits by reading the upcoming article, “Dopamine and Mood”.
Until then, do not overdose on tryptophan, and watch the relating video for more practical recommendations on boosting your serotonin levels and elevating your mood for optimal poker prowess.
1 Angelo, 2 Angelo, 3 Schroeder, 4 Schroeder, 5 Schroeder, 6 Schroeder, 7 Thayer, 8 Nickerson, 9 Schroeder, 10 Thayer, 11 Young, 12 Young, 13 Young, 14 Young, 15 Young
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