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Posted by on Feb 19, 2013 in Crime, Featured, Guest Contributor, Health, Politics, Society | 5 comments

Maureen O’Connor, Gambling Self-Sabotage vs Personal Success

by Dr. Kevin Purcell

There can be a fine line between self-sabotage and personal success.

What comes to your mind when you hear Maureen O’Connor, the former Mayor of San Diego, admit that she gambled billions of dollars between 2000 and 2009?

Is it disgust, sadness, jaw dropping or a bit of all three?

What about alcoholism?

How do you view Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Or those crazy (or admirable) athletes that race something called the Ironman Triathlon (2.4 miles swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run)?

Maureen O’Connor was married to Robert O. Peterson, co-founder of Jack in the Box. He died in 1994 and she was left about $50 million dollars. Today she is destitute.

She admits to taking $2 million dollars from the foundation her husband established, the R.P. Foundation, to fund her gambling. From 2000 to 2009 O’Conner reports that she won $1 Billion dollars! However, she lost $1.13 Billion.

What makes a person act out in such an odd way? I don’t know for sure in Maureen’s case, but I do know she lost three siblings in one year; then suffered a stroke and later had a large brain tumor removed in 2011. Both the stroke and the tumor could explain some abnormal behaviors.

What about less extreme examples; the thrill seekers, a wealth accumulation compulsion, the fitness addicts, the drinkers, the blog trolls or sex addicts? It begs the question, what is going on up in our heads?

“Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness Go Hand in Hand”. That quote is one of my all-time favorite statements. I believe Plato said it over 2300 years ago. I see it more as a goal than an axiom. I believe the closer we get to both mental and physical fitness at once, the closer we are to personal potential for long term health.

When we are young, we may have no idea how challenging it might be to fulfill both components of this equation at the same time, long term.

Many kids think these two things, mental and physical fitness, naturally flow together along a continuum; it turns out for many adults it is a little more complicated than that and requires constant due diligence and focus.

David Linden has written a book entitled, “The Compass of Pleasure”. Linden describes normal pleasure as water, food and sex. He suggests that many of the other obsessions we experience are a result of the dopamine circuit of the brain gone a bit awry. [ed. note: dopamine is a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and a precursor of other substances including epinephrine. It is thought these elements, when flooding the body, give a sense of excitement, arousal, pleasure, even a sense of ecstasy… and that these bodily elements can be sought habitually in healthy ways, or destructively in certain other ways… as a person seeks to ramp up by engaging in certain activities and endeavors repetitively.]

There is an attenuated dopamine system in the brain. If dopamine is low, the same set of variables that lead someone else (more “normal” — whatever that is) to experience pleasure may not register pleasure for another.

Yet, those impulses to seek pleasurable outcomes that are useful, may serve us well in business, when serving clients, seeing patients, seeking control, saving the world or when pursuing athletic success.

Some men and women feel they have a need to go near or over the line to find similar pleasure, and this too, we see in those who challenge themselves for instance in extreme sports, for instance. However, sometimes those expressions of dedication to an idea or activity can be less than constructive.

If we take Plato’s thoughts and incorporate Linden’s ideas we might have a compass for health. It is Linden’s opinion that our pleasures can be virtues or vices.

Interestingly, it appears that some brain scans suggest that generosity and exercise impact the same areas of the brain as gambling, alcohol and marijuana.

Likewise, uncertainty (and all things that bring it) stimulates the medial forebrain and the dopamine circuit; the same brain center that is stimulated while waiting for the flop card when playing blackjack, or video poker. And this circuitry may have been underlying in Maureen O’Conner’s case.

More than a few alcohol drinkers turned endurance athletes intuitively understood this prior to being presented with medical evidence.

The activities and endeavors that provide us short term happiness seem to overlap in the brain with things that make us healthy (or unhealthy) long term.

Linden’s advice: take your pleasures wisely, take your vices moderately and mix in some virtuous pleasures. In other words, raise dopamine levels on purpose (generosity and exercise).

It would be a mistake to underestimate the role our attitudes play in our health. Whether recovering from sessions on a bike or a run, or sessions in chemotherapy, we need all of our resources from within and from outside ourselves to support us to be at our best.

Be kind,
and seek to maintain a positive attitude.

There is a healing force in the body that is enhanced by positive attitudes. This healing force is something no one can dispute nor diminish by saying it is merely philosophical rhetoric.

When we boil health down to a healing art and science, it is clear how powerful our choices can be. As in Maureen O’Connor’s case, which is complex because of medical conditions, there can be much healing yet. It’s not that exercise and kindness and positive attitude will do it all. It’s that learning about the ways and means of body and mind will help one to be at optimum judgement, optimum choices about health in every way possible.

Dr. Kevin Purcell is also known as KP here at TMV. Dr Purcell, D.C., works with long course triathletes; from elite to those new to endurance sport. Coach KP has guided dozens of athletes to qualification to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, including over 15 IM age group championships. He is certified in Active Release Technique (ART). Coach KP retired from competition in 2006.

Ed. note: the image is of Mayor O’Connor before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

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  • ordinarysparrow

    KP find this a most interesting read… the topics you write about, hope you become a regular.

    Based on this post and the direction it points… will share this recent post from Mother Jones with suggestion there are difference in the brains of Democrats and Republicans…If this is true, as i suspect, there to be some influence, one has only to pause to realize how much effect brain function effects all of us based on the policy which is created from the differences…

    I find Obama’s hope to map the brain as we did with the Genome to be most interesting…as we move into understanding the brain the old ways of seeing are likely to be challenged. It may be the biggest and most far reaching proposal of his eight years.

    In my work with mitigation for Capital Murder cases, there were three factors that often came together…Early childhood abuse and neglect, a significant event of brain trauma, and the use of drugs… Each of those effect the functioning of the brain…Most often when the mitigation was presented from each of these area a jury was less likely to issue the death penalty.

    Would love to hear what you think about the Mother Jones article and about Obama’s proposal to map the brain?

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    What an informative and interesting article (Dr.) KP.

    Thank you, and I hope to see more of your writings,


  • KP

    Thank you for your kind words OS // and Dorian.

    “Would love to hear what you think about the Mother Jones article and about Obama’s proposal to map the brain?”

    Second question first:

    I find the ‘mapping of the brain’ project to be fascinating and as important as the genome mapping. I am working on an article for TMV that will talk about health, exercise and the plasticity of the brain; particularly as they relate to older adults. I am 57 and had a father who died at 49. I am all for getting old!

    As we learn more about how our actions influence the environment we live in, as well as how the environment we live in alters our brains, we open new avenues and opportunities to raise mental and physical health; by extension, quality of life.

    On Chris Mooney’s article on Mother Jones:

    Different brains interpret similar data differently. That is something we see every day. Now that we are starting to be able to watch the brain work we have some proof of what we already knew.

    When it comes to politics, I am uncomfortable putting labels on people with specific stigma attached, like Republican or Democrat. I would rather Mooney discuss the political aspect of brain function as it relates to ideologues. Then, we see elements of both extremes making up a balanced middle or blend.

    Our country is nearly split in half, Democrats and Republicans. However, the vast majority of us agree on most things that are of great importance. In other words, about 70% of the country will agree on most things.

    TMV blog is living proof of the plasticity of the brain. If we listen to one another we can learn from one another. Learning literally, physically, alters the brain! Think of a pebble tossed into still water and the rings that travel outward as spheres of influence. A brain suffering dis-ease will send a rippling effect of some kind on its environment. Similarly, the loving, understanding, peaceful, stress reducing, problem solving brain spreads another type of influence.

  • zephyr

    It’s kind of hard to work up much sympathy for someone who utterly wastes resources on such a scale – regardless of how screwed up they are. So in that sense “disgust” is the word that comes to mind first. As for mental fitness and physical fitness going hand in hand? I absolutely believe it.

  • KP

    Disgust is a legit reaction and that’s why I mentioned it. An even more dramatic waste of resources is one’s own health — say — through alcoholism or drug addiction or obesity. Of course, then there is the collateral damage of family health in all of the examples including finaces.

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