What Happens to Your Brain On Tilt?

homer-simpson-brain-mriThe fundamental difference between the common approaches to poker tilt and what I do comes down to how emotion is viewed. When emotion is viewed as the cause of problems at the poker table, it makes perfect sense why conventional wisdom would urge you to become robotic, trick your mind, or become desensitized to emotion.

In essence, traditional tactics are suggesting that anger is inherently bad, so you must get rid of it. Of course your end goal is to get these negative emotions out of your game, but they are the symptom—not the real cause of why you play poorly.

Finding the cause of your emotional problems requires digging a little deeper, and when you do, the role of emotion completely changes. Emotion, once seen as the problem, now serves a valuable purpose—highlighting flaws in how you are mentally approaching the game. In essence, emotion is a messenger telling you exactly what to work on in your mental game.

More on that in a future post, but for now, let’s dig into what exactly happens when you go on tilt.

Malfunctioning Mind

There is one basic principle for how the brain functions that is not well known by poker players, or even by the general public. Failing to understand this principle directly impacts your attempts to control and fix emotional problems like tilt.

First, a little background information to help you understand how the brain works. The brain is organized in a hierarchy. The first level is where all of the most important functions of the brain are stored, such as heart rate, breathing, balance, and sleep/wake cycles. The second level of the brain is the emotional system, and the third is the mental level containing all of the higher brain functions, such as thinking, planning, perception, awareness, organization, and emotional control.

Here’s the rule:

When the emotional system becomes overactive, it shuts down higher brain functions.

If your emotions are too high, you make poor poker decisions because the brain prevents you from being able to think straight. The following also happens:

• Your mind goes blank.
• You miss key pieces of the hand.
• You overweight the importance of some information, or fixate on irrelevant information.
• You know the right answer, but it’s as if your head is in a fog.
• You fall back into bad habits.

Unfortunately, when emotions are overactive the loss of higher brain functions is something that no one controls. It’s a hardwired part of our brain that isn’t going to change. Many of you know it as the “fight or flight response,” and your mind is essentially malfunctioning as if it were a computer short-circuiting.

While you can’t control the fact that the emotional system shuts down your ability to think, you must start trying to control your emotions before reaching your emotional threshold (the point where emotions start to shut down higher brain functions); otherwise, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Too often mental game strategies suggest that it’s easy to think when you’re on tilt. It’s not. Your brain shuts off your ability to think. That’s why, as you will see in a future post, prevention is a key strategy for dealing with tilt.

Performance and Emotion

Emotion is essential for performance; it’s only when there is too much (or too little) emotion that there is a problem. This is true of both positive emotions and negative emotions. Having too much confidence is a problem because it shuts down your ability to think. Being tired is a problem because you don’t have enough energy to think.

Understanding the relationship between emotion and performance, as shown by the following principle, makes improving your mental game easier. Yerkes-Dodson Law describes the relationship between the level of arousal (the psychological term for energy, emotion, focus, or stress) and a player’s performance. This law states that your performance improves as your emotions rise…but only to a certain point.


If emotion continues to rise and crosses your threshold (the top of the curve), performance starts to decline because the emotional system shuts down your ability to think. You can’t perform as well because you can’t think as well; and if you can’t think as well, you can’t access the skills you’re currently learning.

This demonstrates exactly what happens when you are on tilt. Anger leads to high arousal and shuts down your ability to access higher level brain functioning. The only thing you are left with is that part of your poker game which is instinctive – your C-game.

Now this does not mean that you are left with being a mindless zombie of a player, far from it. There are parts of your game which are mastered to the level of instinct which are solid, that you can rely on even when you are tilt. For example if even on your most extreme monkey tilt you fold marginal hands out of position, that demonstrates you have the importance of hand selection and positional awareness mastered to the level of instinct. Some players still have C-games which can crush.

As mentioned at the top of this post, prevention is one of the best tools you can have in your arsenal for combating tilt, and that is what we will look at in the next post.

If you liked this post, don’t miss the first post in this series on defining tilt.

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