This is Your Brain on a Lottery Ticket


The odds of winning the lottery seem dismal – a joke, really – when you haven’t bought a ticket. You once heard the chances of getting struck by lightening, twice, were better. The whole thing is a scam. An institutionalized fee for gullibility.

You only bought it for fun. The jackpot was breaking records and everyone was doing it. Ticket in pocket, you imagine your numbers on the lottery website. Just for a minute, you imagine experiencing the stomach-turning realization that you won and your stomach actually turns. Better to put it in your wallet, just in case. Wouldn’t it be funny if this turned out to be the best five dollars you ever spent instead of the dumbest? I mean, it’s silly, you won’t win. But what was that thing Wayne Gretzky said? You lose 100% of the lotteries you don’t play? Statistics suddenly strike you as a little boring.

“It was really just a joke,” you imagine telling Oprah, cameras rolling. “I never thought I’d actually win.”

First you’d have to quit your job. Not that you hate it, not that you’re only doing it for the money, but full-time employment would get in the way, wouldn’t it? Spare time will be scarce between picking out tiles for your heated bathroom floors, traveling to 196 countries, replacing 100% of your wardrobe and starting that little side business you’ve never had the time nor funds to get off the ground. Oh. And managing all the philanthropy of course. You’ll be one of those generous rich people. Not that you’ll win anyway.

But you could.

You’re getting ahead of yourself. Ha ha. But when you go to dinner with some friends that night, you find yourself asking what people would do if they won. You all agree you’d hire an accountant right away. Maybe a lawyer. Would you claim it anonymously? Absolutely. Would you tell your friends? Just a few. The conversation’s pace is picking up. Eyes are glowing a little brighter. One friend says they’d buy a private jet. Another says they’d keep their job until they had a bad day so they could quit dramatically, flipping off Jon in Accounts Receivable on their way out the door. Another says they’d buy property in ten different countries and fly everyone out for parties. Lump sum or annuity payments? Definitely lump. “Can you imagine seeing such a number in your checking account?” Everyone goes silent, hearts thump, imaginations soar.

When you get to work the next day, your colleague tells you she got in an argument with her husband over how they’d spend their winnings. You both laugh and exchange your respective plans, debating certain elements as if they weren’t hypothetical. A passing colleague jumps in. She’d tell everyone that she was working on a project and then claim she sold the idea for millions a year later. That way no one could resent her or expect her to pay for lunch. You all agree this is brilliant. Except she’s kind of blowing her cover. A third coworker overhears, says she’d buy a penthouse overlooking Central Park and invite you guys over for champagne if you play your cards right. You’re all smiling like idiots, high off the buzz of possibility.

People beat crazy odds all the time, you think. Why not now? Why not you? You walk around like you have a secret for days. What would it feel like to never worry about money again? What would it feel like to do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to? Somehow imagining it feels like feeling it for real. You know money isn’t everything or even the half of it but shit, it would really be something, wouldn’t it?

Tuesday night is drawing closer. You’re nervous like a 10-year-old before a piano recital. Why haven’t you bought more lottery tickets? How had you passed up so many possibilities in the past? Before you check the website you brace yourself. You wonder if you should memorize anything about the moment. Just in case. “I was on the bus, I didn’t think anything of it! I was just on my way home from work!” Oprah cuts to commercial. Your eyes scan the numbers and in three seconds, everything’s gone. The dreaming, the hoping, the maybes. You didn’t hit a single one.

Ha ha ha, right? Of course you didn’t win. It was just a joke anyway.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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