New Wine, Old Bottle

Hope keeps many alive, because now and then there are winners

This week a good percentage of Mauritians is going to experience another form of April cyclone – it is going to be a psychological self-reckoning.

As with our individual life, now and then there crops up, in society, a new event for the first time. We find ourselves face to face with a new experience, for better or worse. And, as usual, we humans adapt and learn from such happenings.

I am talking of this hundred million rupees jackpot, for which many punters, amateurs, addicts and stubborn gamblers are sticking their neck out.

The bait is so huge and appealing, and taking place in our Republic for the first time, that almost all of us, even the non gamblers-are raising their eyebrows and popping out their eyes.

Gambling has been with us since time immemorial; does it have to do with our abstract thinking, our undying belief of being able to predict the future, our addiction to everything that is mathematical and numerical, our wishful thinking to beat the odds and prove that we are cleverer, to go against our parental – specially paternal — restriction and authority? One can only guess. The Mahabharata epic haunts our psyche still.

But suffice it to say that every week, if one decided to measure the dopamine level (dopamine – a feel good substance in our brain) in all punters’ blood – there would be a peak on Saturday morning as everyone expects to win. And come Sunday morning, that expectation would have petered out, the dopamine would be at its lowest ebb. The losers would feel deflated and let down by Lady Luck. But gradually as the week proceeds, there would be again a gradual surge in expectations and a bizarre psychological self-hypnotism with each punter believing that this Saturday will be his day.

This game is being repeated week in week out. This is a sample of our resilience in the face of defeat and reminds us of Darwin’s pet theory of survival of the fittest. Hope keeps many alive, because now and then there are winners.

Religious people are not very happy; it is against ethics and religious edicts to immerse oneself in such uncertain game of pure luck and spending so much hard won cash with such lavishness. As with alcohol and cigarettes, everyone knows that they are of no great benefit to the human race; they even cause a lot of harm. So also gambling is included in this category, though one does not ingest or smoke it. But its psychological impact is as great as the former two. It is another form of addiction. In its attempt to control and regulate a much unwanted evil, our society has to legalize gambling, like it did with cigarettes and alcohol.

Scientific papers have shown that, if given the choice between buying already printed lottery and the freedom to write one’s own numbers, most people will choose the latter (poor Lotterie Verte). As if we know best and we want to decide our own fate, we like to juggle with numbers. And when the result is out we see, in retrospect, patterns of logic; we compare our written forecast with that result and lament how close we have been to the real thing. Just as we have evolved to see patterns of faces and imaginary animals in the clouds, in a patch of oil on the road, in the shifting shadows of a tree, so we see mathematical patterns in our predictions.

Is it possible that this expensive pastime is nothing but a way of whiling away time? Freud had called many of our activities a structurisation of time; we have time on hand and we have to fill it in, specially if at the end of it there is substantial gain to boost our ego, to make us feel on top of the world.

One interesting theory put forward to explain the origin of gambling is the following: our faraway ancestors had observed and taken a page from the book of our cousin chimpanzees. In the tribal life of the latter, there was always a dominant male who used to monopolize all the harem for itself. And what would the other males waiting on the sidelines do? They gang up together and start playing and teasing each other.

Our ancestors, having the chief of the village playing the Omega male (later the powerful monarchy would take over that role) started finding some game to beat the boredom of psychological castration. That’s how they invented all sort of challenges — and the more uncertainty there was in the game the merrier it was. And better still if all that were done away from parental authority, away from home and family.

That’s how we ended having our illegal bookmaker, our clandestine gambling. We love it secretly, it is a cauldron of mixed feelings, mixed substances in the brain (neurotransmitters like dopamine) giving us the sense of danger, of uncertainty, of possible final gain, of applying our mind to solve problems, of inflicting psychological pain on our selves and others – proving our sense of masochism or sadism.

In the coming days, many Mauritians will prove the rule by playing the Loto. They will have all sorts of associations to play and beat the odds. Some will stick to standing entries; to date of births, to odd or even numbers; combinations of small and big numbers. Some will play the numbers in a chosen file or rank, or still go according to the red, blue, yellow or green catchment area. Many will sit and revise the old results of the past 4 years or so, trying to unveil a much hidden pattern in them. Do the winning numbers have a certain regular interval between them? Are they multiples of a certain smaller number?

And many will know that for the past 10 week draws, the numbers 6, 9,11, 21, 26 and 33 had not been drawn; will some of them appear at this crucial coming Saturday night? Many of these past results, when plotted on a Loto form will give the impression of certain pattern, of a cup, or a ‘bol renversé’, of crosses, etc. True to their nature, the punters will find a pattern that they would like to think will bring them luck. In their heart of hearts, they would feel that numbers are man-made, and so there must be a sort of connivance and understanding between them, which must make them behave according to a certain law of probability. Little do they know that the mathematical forces exist long before life budded out and man appeared in the cosmos; they are included in the very fabric of their cells and neurons and that is why they have been enslaved and addicted to numbers.

And when the jury will be out with the final result, there will be the usual sighs, regrets and crestfallen losers. The dopamine level would have fizzled out after giving the believers all sorts of optimism and cozy dreams. But there would be a few winners who will start building castles in the air.

And to the majority, Heisenberg’s law of uncertainty would have reigned supreme even in our classical world: it would set Mauritian psychology at a different, new gear and cause many a religious person to shake his head in disapproval and disbelief.


* Published in print edition on 4 April 2014

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