Let's Not Link Everything to Addiction

Learning from a brain scanning study that linked tanning bed users to addicts

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This week, people who enjoy tanning salons learned that their hobby was an addiction just like drugs or booze. Researchers behind the study, The New York Times relayed, noticed "that several parts of the brain that play a role in addiction were activated when the subjects were exposed to UV rays." Those areas are referred to as "reward" areas of the brain. But, as Time's Maia Szalavitz explained, when they "light up" they don't prove addiction, they just show enjoyment. So comparing people who enjoy tanning to addicts may be a bit of an exaggeration. She writes: "We do a disservice both to the understanding of the brain and to our decisions regarding drug treatment and policy when we think about it so simplistically."

The "thinking about it simplistically" part, to be fair, seemed aimed more at headline writers than researchers. And as Szalavitz noted, the "X is just like drug addiction" theme seems to be regular staple in the news. In these reports, the "addiction" part is played up--and not just in gambling, tobacco, drugs and alcohol related studies. A few of the brain-scanning addiction links we've noticed:

A romantic break up is like cocaine addiction  We were among the many who relayed this bit of research last year. The Stony Brook University research team we cited noted "that brain imaging showed some similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving....The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic love is a specific form of addiction."

A 'baby's smile has addictive drug-like qualities for moms' was the headline of this Fox News research write up in 2008."A study published in this month’s Pediatrics journal involving 28 first-time mothers shows that when a woman looks at a photo of her baby smiling, the reward centers of her brain light up," wrote Fox, which noted that researchers behind the study said: "It may be that seeing your own baby's face is like a natural high."

Desserts like Häagan Daz and chocolate milkshakes are a fix  In April, a Health.com article repurposed on CNN described this study seeming to link ice cream loving with drug addiction: "When these women saw pictures of a chocolate milk shake made with Häagen-Dazs ice cream, they displayed increased activity in the same regions of the brain that fire when people who are dependent on drugs or alcohol experience cravings."

A sense of adventure can be exploited  In 2008, when researchers found that the same areas of the brain that were linked with addiction also helped facilitate "novel choices" (which were then theorized as adventurousness), they had these words of caution for BBC News: "Professor Nathaniel Daw, now at New York University, who also worked on the study, said rewarding the brain for novel choices could have a more serious side effect. "In humans, increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction, both of which are mediated by malfunctions in dopamine release."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.