According to a recent NYTimes.com article, researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that force people to live their lives filled with anxiety and frustration. This theory begs the question as to whether poker players are like the mice used in this recent experiment that suggests humans can train their brains to seek out certain negative behavior patterns.
After five years of covering poker, I have become a firm believer that the process of becoming a losing player really begins once the brain starts to recognize certain brainwave patterns (be they good or bad). According to the report in the journal Science, the scientists found that mice that were put under stress for the test had results that are similar to the way in which the human brain would react in the same situation.
These stressed-out mice experienced changes in their neural circuitry as regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors shriveled, while brain sectors linked to habit formation grew exponentially. In other words, a mouse’s brain demanded the same highs that come with the fight-or-flight pattern many poker players experience on a constant basis. By having these brainwave patterns repeated, the mice became habitual stress addicts, something many poker players unknowingly become, too.
While writing a story for Bluff Magazine, I had a chance to interview World Series of Poker Acadamy instructor Sam Chauhan. Having echoed the same sentiments as the study did, Sam repeatedly identified the impact a negative thought process has on the brain. "The most important piece of our game is the psychology of the mind. If you lose and feel bad, then you’ll only find more losses down the road," Chauhan said. I couldn't agree more.
Although this may seem like bad news at first for many players that don't find themselves a winner at the end of the day, recognizing that the brain develops negative patterns presents a player (and every human) the chance to break those patterns and re-establish positive patterns that will retrain the brain. Although retraining may prove difficult at first, keep in mind that the brain will begin to appreciate the new patterns and subsequently start seeking more opportunities to achieve the feeling one gets when one is “living right.”
Take comfort that once a player begins to understand what it feels like to win, it becomes much tougher to revert to losing patterns as the brain will seek out the repetition of the chemical response that comes when one wins. The problem for most players is that they need to overcome their negative patterns to find out how to become a winner and many players’ egos keep them from advancing in the game. There are numerous stories of players that attempted to achieve greatness but came up short. One of the biggest reasons for this is that they were unwilling to change their losing ways.
In life, a person can either sit and bitch about the situation or they can do something about it. Because poker players love to bitch, many refuse to examine the leaks in their games and thus remain on a losing path. On the other hand, players that achieve longevity do so by training themselves to be a winner both at the tables and in life. If you want to be a winning player, check your ego at the door and be merciless when it comes to analyzing your game. Only then will you be able to recognize negative patterns and make the necessary changes.
This brings me back to the point of this rant. Science is telling us that we literally program ourselves into thinking in certain ways, so I wonder what is stopping us from using this knowledge to our advantage. The answer is our egos. Ultimately we are our own worst enemy until we learn to love ourselves enough to change the way we act and think.
This reminds me of a story the wise philosopher Khempo once wrote. In the story, a man walks down a street and falls into a hole. The next time he walks down the street, he tries to get around the hole but fails. He repeats this process over and over until one day, he wakes up and realizes that he needs to make a change if he wants to stop falling in the hole. After coming to this realization, the man decides to walk down a different street with no holes.
In the end, poker players have to look at their patterns to make the changes necessary to become winners. By making these changes, they create changes in their brains that will help them succeed in life and in poker. Why not give it a try?