Spencer Murch is a PhD candidate at UBC’s Cognitive Science program. He is a graduate fellow of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Spencer’s research focuses on the experience of immersion during slot machine gambling. The phenomenon, related to concepts of flow and dissociation, is typically reported as a feeling of being “in the zone” while gambling and is a predictor of problem gambling risk. The goal of his studies, broadly speaking, is to identify meaningful predictors of immersion and problem gambling risk using cognitive tasks and advanced psychophysiological technologies like mobile eye tracking and non-invasive cardiac output.

Ultimately, Spencer hopes to reduce the incidence of gambling disorder associated with modern slot machine use.

What if being ‘in the zone’ was bad for you?

Most people have, at some point in their lives, experienced a kind of hyper-focused state of mind during work or leisure. We often describe the experience as being ‘in the zone,’ and it’s usually a good thing. The zone helps us tune out distractions and responsibilities, makes us feel good, and makes time seem to just fly by. But what if being in the zone cost money? How much would you spend to stay in it, and how would you keep track?

Gambling researchers are increasingly interested in this topic, which we call ‘immersion’ in play. Experiencing immersion while gambling is a robust predictor of problem gambling levels, and appears to be disproportionately linked to modern slot machines. Crucially, the cost of these games is paid at the start of every spin, and some researchers have argued that immersed players may lose track of how much they are spending. These accounts imply a breakdown in players’ ability to continue making informed choices while gambling, and are therefore a major concern for the many jurisdictions that collect revenue from recreational gambling. Despite these concerns, very few studies have tried to define the mechanism of slot machine immersion, so little is known about the origins and function of the experience.

In my time as a PhD student in the Cognitive Science program at UBC’s Department of Psychology, I have worked to unpack the immersion experience, organizing my experiments around three core questions:

  • Can we measure immersion levels using players’ behaviour or physiological signals?
  • Does immersion become the overriding motivation for continued gambling, or is it just a by-product of the motivation to win?
  • Could responsible gambling tools be designed to break through immersion, or should we try to reach players before they get into the zone?

Ultimately, I hope to parlay the results of my work into scientifically-informed gambling policies that reduce the incidence of problem gambling in BC and abroad.


Murch, W. S., Ferrari, M. A., McDonald, B. M., Clark, L. (2020). Investigating Flow States and Cardiac Pre-Ejection Period during Electronic Gaming Machine Use. Frontiers in Psychology: Performance Science. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00300.

Murch, W. S., Limbrick-Oldfield, E. H., Ferrari, M. A., MacDonald, K. I., Fooken, J., Cherkasova, M. V., Spering, M., Clark, L., (2019). Zoned In or Zoned Out? Investigating Immersion in Slot Machine Gambling using Mobile Eye Tracking. Addiction. doi: 10.1111/add.14899.

Murch, W. S., & Clark, L. (2019). Commentary on Graydon et al. (2018): Realistic simulations and nudging gambling policy. Addiction. 114(1), 125-126. doi: 10.1111/add.14493

Kennedy, D., Goshko, C., Murch, W. S., Limbrick-Oldfield, E. H., Dunn, B. D., Clark, L. (2019). Interoception and respiratory sinus arrhythmia in gambling disorder. Psychophysiology. [ePub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1111/psyp.13333

Murch, W. S., & Clark, L. (2019). Effects of bet size and multi-line play on immersion and respiratory sinus arrhythmia during electronic gaming machine use. Addictive Behaviors. 88, 67-72. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.08.014

Ferland, J.N., Adams, W.K., Murch, S., Wei, L., Clark, L., Winstanley, C.A. (2018). Investigating the influence of ‘losses disguised as wins’ on decision making and motivation in rats. Behavioral Pharmacology. 29(8), 732-744. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0000000000000455

Chu, S., Limbrick-Oldfield, E. H., Murch, W. S., & Clark, L. (2017). Why do slot machine gamblers use stopping devices? Findings from a “Casino Lab” experiment. International Gambling Studies. http://doi.org/10.1080/14459795.2017.1413125

Murch, W. S., Chu S. W. M. & Clark, L. (2017). Measuring the slot machine zone with attentional dual tasks and respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 31(3):375-384. doi: 10.1037/adb0000251

Murch W. S. & Clark L. (2016). Games in the brain: Neural substrates of gambling addiction. The Neuroscientist. 22(5), 534-545. doi: 10.1177/1073858415591474

Cocker, P. J., Hosking, J. G., Murch, W. S., Clark L. & Winstanley C. A. (2016) Activation of dopamine D4 receptors within the anterior cingulate cortex enhances the erroneous expectation of reward on a rat slot machine task. Neuropharmacology, 105, 186-195. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2016.01.019

Silveira, M. M., Murch, W. S., Clark L. & Winstanley C. A. (2016). Chronic atomoxetine treatment during adolescence does not influence decision-making on a rodent gambling task but does modulate amphetamine’s effect on impulsive action in adulthood. Behavioral Pharmacology, 27 (4), 350-363. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0000000000000203

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