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From the Archives: The zone

Posted Oct 15 2011 9:00am
Seeing as I will be absent this weekend, I've selected two favorite posts from the archives to tide you over until I return. Enjoy!

Though people have claimed to be "addicted" to darn near anything (herbal tea, Sudoku puzzles, hitting the snooze button, and cats are several of my non-addictions), it's pretty widely accepted that gambling is a bona fide addiction. And with any neurological talk of addiction, you pretty much have to talk about dopamine (a good if slightly technical explanation is here ). Performing your addictive behaviors, or even just anticipating getting a "hit" later on, releases dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel good. So you do the behavior more, although less dopamine is released as your brain and body begin to tolerate what you're addicted to. So you increase the amount you use, and the cycle is off and running.

I have no doubt that addiction and dopamine are closely linked, and that there are also links between eating disorders and dopamine*. But new research from Natasha Schull at MIT found that people addicted to gambling aren't motivated by the "hook" of a possible big win. That may have drawn them into the habit to begin with, Schull said, but it's not what keeps them going. What keeps them going is their entrance into what Schull calls "The Zone." The zone is

a dissociative state or trance in which players lose a sense of time, space and physical embodiment, consumed totally by the spinning numbers, symbols or electronic card hands before their eyes. Because gambling machines don't require social interaction (as is the case in table games such as poker), they let people get into and stay in a state that is not dissimilar to, but far more intense than, watching TV; players describe the zone as a compelling, mesmerizing condition of intense concentration -- an almost out-of-body experience. Heavy machine gamblers come to crave this state, says Schull.

"It's about wanting to keep playing," she says. "People will actually get disappointed or irritated if they win a jackpot because it may freeze up the machine and interrupt their flow. Then they have to sit there until they lose it. Walking away with the jackpot is not an option" in their state of mind.

I've played one slot machine in my life- a nickel machine, and I put one nickel in, got nine back, and quit while I was ahead- but I am very familiar with the zone. That, to me, was one of the biggest draws of the eating disorder. I've been around the block enough times to know that losing weight won't make me happy and make me into a different person. I know that not eating will make me feel physically terrible in the long run. I know there will never be a magic weight that will finally make me feel "thin" and okay and good enough and relieved.

But damn don't I miss that zone. The blinding haze of starvation. The single-minded focus of exercising until I wanted to drop. The obsession with food. It distanced me from the world. I was interviewing for jobs several years ago and wound up the last of my friends without a permanent position. After getting turned down for a position yet again, I just thought "I've lost X lbs in the week since I last spoke with you- oh well about the job." It's partly a self-esteem thing (at least I'm good at losing weight), but the other part is the zone.

I almost feel half-dissociated when I'm in the throes of the eating disorder because my connection with reality is blunted at best and gone at worst. All that matters is eating less and exercising more. All that matters is making that number on the scale go down. So the normal, day-to-day stresses kind of fade into background noise.

Eating would wrench me out of the zone, back into the dark, noisy, smoke-filled casino that is my life. This was why I couldn't stop starving even after I reached my initial "goal weight." The zone was what mattered. If I couldn't be in the zone, then my brain tried to find any way in the book to get back there, even just a little bit. No slot machine in a casino? Well, maybe there's one in Safeway, or at the gas station, or on the internet. Maybe I can shove my snack into my pocket or lie about that bowl of cereal I ate for breakfast.

Maybe the zone is nice, even nicer than reality at times. But if all you see of life is the inside of a casino, you're missing out on a lot.

*Yes, I do
have to bring everything back to eating disorders if for no other reason than I'm assuming that's why you're reading.
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