What makes something cute? What goes on in our brain that evokes feelings of “awwww….”?
Millions, probably billions of people spend countless hours perusing the web for the next adorable video. Kittens, puppies, monkeys, goats, babies, … you name it. Zoo animals, including animal “bloopers,” seem to be especially popular.
While the answer to this question may surprise many of us (including this writer), the answer to “Why do we find something cute?” can be answered in one word: survival. While primitively-motivated, the rationale for why we find something cute is fascinating.
But before we get into the evolutionary mechanisms behind why we determine something to be cute, here are a few characteristics that all physically endearing things seem to have in common:
– Big, forward-facing eyes
– Rounded ears
– Coated fur (or rounded, potted belly)
– Loose limbs
– A large head that’s disproportionate to its body size
These features – and perhaps others – make up what is called kinderschema (pronounced kin-der-skeem-uh). Kinderschema is a set of physical characteristics that humans are naturally drawn towards.
But puppies, kittens, and other adorables aren’t the only things that trigger kinderschema. Human babies do, too; and it’s these similarities (rounded belly, big head, big eyes, loose limbs, etc.) between our offspring and, say, a puppy golden retriever, that makes us smitten with both the former and latter.
Science Explains What Makes People Think Something Is Cute
What goes on in the brain?
Ever stop and stare when you see a cute baby being wheeled through the mall? Petted someone else’s puppy as they were walking it? When we look at something cute and cuddly, two emotional cues suddenly fire within the brain. Neuroscientists call these emotional signals “hijacks” because they have a way of hijacking our attention!
First, the region known as the orbital frontal cortex, or OFC, becomes highly active. The OFC sits just above the eye sockets and has extensive connections with both sensory and emotional structures involved in emotion and memory. When it comes to “cuteness,” however, it’s the OFC’s decision-making properties that are key. This decision-making mechanism prompts us to want to hold onto that puppy, kitten, or baby – in doing so, we protect the baby or animal – a very natural human desire.
Secondly, the brain’s nucleus accumbens, or NAc, releases dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical – as it does when we do things like fall in love, have sex, or take certain drugs. Relatedly, excess dopamine is what prompts the urge to view the cute video – over and over again. That’s because dopamine, as it turns out, plays a key role in addiction. So it’s not too far off to say “These cute videos are sooo addicting!”
Both of the above-describe actions of the brain encourage us to protect the baby (or cute animal), and rewards you for doing just that.
One girl shares her story:
“My brain did this very thing when I was at a dairy farm in Maui. A little baby goat came up to me and started chewing on my shorts! Normally, that’s not a thing I’d encourage. But look how cute and adorable his face is! Who could say no to you? I just want to cuddle you and take care of you!”
What does this have to do with survival?
We, humans, possess an intrinsic motivation to care for babies and children. These caregiving tendencies, honed through millions of years of evolution, provide the impulse to protect the child (or animal); even if this means disregarding our own safety in doing so.
Something else quite fascinating: our brain actively searches for babies, animals, and other cute things to protect and care for. Again, this action of the mind may be explainable through the dopamine “hit” we receive every time we see, hold, and care for a baby or animal.
Kinderschema is so powerful, in fact, that our brain reacts similarly when we see cartoon babies and other cuties. (Who doesn’t think the Minions in Despicable Me are lovable?)