Are Parents Really Kid Junkies? What the Research Says

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On the surface, addiction seems like the least adaptive behavior in the world: addicts persist in taking drugs despite negative consequences over and over and over, sacrificing relationships, career, home, possessions, often even freedom itself — all for a few fleeting moments of ecstasy and escape. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the same mechanism that produces addiction is profoundly adaptive in the right context — keeping spouses attached to each other and parents hooked on their children.

In Slate this weekend, Shankar Vedantam mused about the possibility that parents are addicted to their kids, writing:

I don’t know if there is empirical evidence to back me up, but it’s conceivable that the neurological mechanisms of addiction — in all their irrational and self-defeating pathologies — are based on underlying mechanisms in the hidden brain that are designed by natural selection to make us seek out — and enjoy — parenthood.

As it turns out, there’s abundant science linking the so-called “addiction regions” of the brain to both love and parenting. One of the first researchers to raise the possibility was Jaak Panksepp, now a professor of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacy and physiology at Washington State University. When I interviewed Panksepp a few years ago, he described the hurdles of trying to publish early research on the effects of drugs like morphine and their natural brain counterparts in the 1970s. (More on Attachment Parenting: The Root of all Evil? Erica Jong Thinks So)

When we first tried to publish our paper on the role of opioids in social attachment in three species, we submitted it to Science,” he said. He said he got two strong positive responses from reviewers, but the paper itself was rejected. When he asked the editor what was wrong with the research, he said he was told, “‘We decided it was too hot to handle. If love and attachment ride on the same system as narcotic addiction, that’s too scary,’ and if it was wrong, they didn’t want to be responsible.”

Now there are hundreds of papers describing the role that brain regions and chemical systems involved in addiction play in parenting and in “pair bonding” (known in humans as falling in love). It’s widely accepted that the brain’s “pleasure systems” are involved in maternal, paternal and romantic behavior. Headlines about studies in which love of all sorts “lights up” the same brain regions on scans as addictive drugs are seen every few weeks. (More on Why Cuteness is Irresistible)

Indeed, research being presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience conference shows yet another aspect of the connection. When female rats were trained to associate cocaine with the smell of peppermint, their brains responded differently to the smell after they’d become mothers, depending on whether their infants were present. If the moms were away from their babies, regions associated with craving lit up in brain scans when the rats smelled mint. But when they were with the pups, this didn’t happen — mothers showed a different brain response, suggesting that the presence of the infants itself profoundly affects the brain’s “reward system.”

And if you think about it, why else would the brain have such a powerful system that keeps people persisting through life despite numerous obstacles, other than to aid survival and reproduction? Why else would behavioral studies find that the most addictive pattern of reinforcement is not consistent bliss, but inconsistent and unpredictable rewards? Loving each other is hard and not always pleasant; taking care of children certainly includes as much pain as it does pleasure. (More on The ‘Mommy Brain’ and Addiction)

In other words, humans evolved “addiction regions” in the brain not so we could become junkies, but more likely so we would persevere in love and parenthood. While it still may be scary to acknowledge the connection between the needle and the warm, fuzzy nuzzles of parenting, doing so might help us treat both addicts and parents more humanely.