Parenting instincts, opioids and Mickey Mouse

There’s an article in the New York Times today covering a study of opioid addiction and parenting instincts. Any study about parenting instincts grabs my attention, because that’s what I am so curious about. What parenting instincts do we truly have, what behavior is learned, and what do we invent on the fly?

The article describes a study where people in two study groups, opioid users and a control group, respond to something called baby schema. It turns out baby schema is a way of measuring baby cuteness, with higher baby schema meaning cuter babies. Opioid addicts apparently don’t respond as strongly to changes in relative baby schema, suggesting that opioid dependence may dull this particular feature of parenting instincts.

I don’t know a lot about opioid dependence, and to me there’s nothing immediately surprising in the idea that drugs, which change the way the brain functions, would alter parenting behavior. What’s interesting to me is the idea of baby schema, which I remember learning about in college biology lecture, although it was described by a different term, neoteny.



Neoteny describes the evolution of juvenile features that remain even until adulthood. The essay by Stephen Jay Gould about the evolution of Mickey Mouse to become “cuter” over the decades is a little tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a little thumb-on-nose, but it makes the point that “cuteness” in humans is not actually subjective. There are highly conserved features (big eyes, mega-heads, stubby appendages) that universally trigger the “Awwwwww!” response that is the verbal expression of parental protective feelings. In the essay, Gould cites Konrad Lorenz, who believed the distinctive features of babies triggered “innate releasing mechanisms,” which were those hard-wired, automatic parenting behaviors. Big head, big cheeks, large eyes, clumsy movements, would trigger parental instincts, and Gould suggests Mickey’s evolution occurred, likely unconsciously, to make him seem more lovable. (Does anyone see Mickey Mouse as lovable? To me he has always been creepy.)

So, if we really have parenting instincts, it seems like there’s a history of agreement that baby features trigger those instincts. If Konrad Lorenz was right, what are the innate releasing mechanisms that are triggered by a baby’s chubby cheeks and stubby legs? Picking them up, touching them, seems like a big one. Everyone wants to touch a baby, especially one with those fat pinchable thighs. But what is it that compels you to want to pick up (or pinch) that baby?

I think there must be limits to the idea that baby features trigger automatic parenting behavior. I’m sure it’s part of the story, but there has to be a lot of other stuff going on. For one, and I want to be delicate here, newborns aren’t at peak cuteness when they arrive. They don’t yet have the chubby, pinchable thighs, or the massive jowly cheeks they develop in those first months. They are red, wrinkly, somewhat geriatric in appearance. They get way cuter over time, right? If those cuteness features are so essential to parenting instincts, are newborns more vulnerable? I doubt it. I don’t know any parent who hasn’t been overwhelmed by love and protective feelings at the sight of their new slimy, squalling baby. But maybe there is an initial vulnerable period. Another question to be answered, or not.





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