Cute baby animals and babies trigger pleasure in human brain that's addicting

Dave Masko's picture

It’s the science of “Aww,” or why humans are drawn to the sight of baby animals and babies because they’re so cute; while experts say the “mere sight of something cute” gives people a natural high.

With millions and millions of people worldwide – both men and women – clicking online to watch any sort of roly-poly “cute baby animal,” British scientists have figured out why humans are getting a natural high, along the lines of eating a piece of chocolate or even having sex, when viewing either a baby or an animal cub. According to a Jan. 6 report on NBC’s Today, top researchers say these cute babies “appeal to the ‘pleasure center’ in our brains. While this is not new, it does explain why “cute baby animals” is a top search for anyone feeling down or blue; while subconsciously they’re thinking “I need my cute fix.” For instance, Scientific American’s January 2012 page one report is centered on the attraction of “Baby Siku," the polar bear cub -- whose name means “Sea Ice” in Greenlandic language -- and who was born in late November, with his mother Ilka having no milk to offer to Siku. So the staff at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Denmark started bottle feeding this cute, helpless polar bear cub, and the rest is history; millions and millions of clicks on the Internet to view Siku rolling around and doing other “cute” things.

People scour the Web for the cutest baby animal photos and videos

Go to any office where people are in their private cubes, and doing whatever they should be doing for work, and you will likely hear someone say “Aww, look at this cutie.” In turn, they reveal another photo or video of Siku the polar bear cub playing or rolling around.

At the same time, any “cute” baby will suffice for the needed cute fix. Kittens, puppies and small babies are the most popular viewed; with the Ellen DeGeneres Show offering the best of these cute YouTube videos of baby animals five-days-a-week for viewers to agree with Ellen that this is yet another “Aww” moment.

Given the world situation, with so much pain and suffering, quips Ellen before showing one of her cute baby animal videos, “we need more of this.”

“Now, at just over 1 month old, Siku is thriving and winning the hearts of viewers around the globe. I can imagine that the park board must be thrilled with the exposure that comes with having such an incredibly cute new addition to care for. In order to provide round the clock care for Siku, the park has employed three full time staff. As you watch the videos below you’ll see just how much help this tiny cub requires – having given birth this fall to a helpless infant of my own, I can certainly understand,” explained Carin Bondar, a biologist, writer and film-maker with a PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia, who explained the appeal of “cute” baby animals such as Siku in the recent edition of Scientific American.

Scientists explain why your brain loves cute

"Omigosh, look at him! He is too cute!"

"How adorable! I wish I could just reach in there and give him a big squeeze!"

"He's so fuzzy! I've never seen anything so cute in my life!"

A guard's sonorous voice rises above the burble. "OK, folks, five oohs and aahs per person, then it's time to let someone else step up front,” explained a 2006 report in The New York Times that attempted to explain the science of “cute.”

The New York Times report went on to explain how a “6-month-old, 25-pound Tai Shan - whose name is pronounced tie-SHON and means, for no obvious reason, "peaceful mountain" - is the first surviving giant panda cub ever born at the Smithsonian's zoo. And though the zoo's adult pandas have long been among Washington's top tourist attractions, the public debut of the baby in December has unleashed an almost bestial frenzy here. Some 13,000 timed tickets to see the cub were snapped up within two hours of being released, and almost immediately began trading on eBay for up to $200 a pair.”

Panda mania is not the only reason that cute is popular with people.

People buy things because they're "cute"

For example, the Times pointed to sales “of petite, willfully cute cars like the Toyota Prius and the Mini Cooper soared, while those of noncute sport utility vehicles tanked. Women's fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous, with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to present a customer's midriff as an adorable preschool bulge.”

Scientists who study “the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others. Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire,” added The New York Times report.

Also, a high school biology textbook notes that “cuteness is the appeal commonly associated with neoteny;” while then explaining that “humans respond favorably to a neotenized appearance. A neotenized appearance elicits sympathy from humans as well as protective urges.”

For instance, Newt Gingrich is not someone you would describe as “cute.”

However, science has proven that people with “cuter faces” are perceived to be “warmer,” more honest and even more employable for jobs. In brief, science has proven that humans are “hard-wired for cute.”

People have a “cuteness detector”

The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, “that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.”

Moreover, The New York Times report explained that “the greater the number of cute cues that an animal or object happens to possess, or the more exaggerated the signals may be, the louder and more italicized are the squeals provoked. Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness.”

"People live hectic lives, and they may be feeling overwhelmed, but then they watch this soft and slow-moving animal, this gentle giant, and they see it turn on its back to get its belly scratched," said Dr. Reep, author with Robert K. Bonde of "The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation."

"That's very endearing," said Dr. Reep. "So even though a manatee is 3 times your size and 20 times your weight, you want to get into the water beside it."

Cute images stimulate pleasure

In turn, scientists admit they are just beginning to map its subtleties and source. The New York Times also noted how “new studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine, which could explain why everybody in the panda house wore a big grin.”

At the same time, said Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.

"Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, let’s not worry about complexities, just love me," said Dr. Dutton, who is writing a book about Darwinian aesthetics. "That's where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow."

Also, The New York Times reported stated that “quick and cheap make cute appealing to those who want to catch the eye and please the crowd. Advertisers and product designers are forever toying with cute cues to lend their merchandise instant appeal, mixing and monkeying with the vocabulary of cute to keep the message fresh and fetching.”

"Cute" sells stuff to people who don't know why

Also, using cute is now a “market-driven exercise in cultural evolution” and it can yield bizarre if endearing results, like the blatantly ugly Cabbage Patch dolls, Furbies, the figgy face of E.T., the froggy one of Yoda. As though the original Volkswagen Beetle wasn't considered cute enough, the updated edition was made rounder and shinier still.

"The new Beetle looks like a smiley face," said Miles Orvell, professor of American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. "By this point its origins in Hitler's regime, and its intended resemblance to a German helmet, is totally forgotten."

“Whatever needs pitching, cute can help,” added The New York Times; while also pointing to a study at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the University of Michigan that showed how “high school students were far more likely to believe antismoking messages accompanied by cute cartoon characters like a penguin in a red jacket or a smirking polar bear than when the warnings were delivered unadorned.”

Image source of a “cute” kitten that offers the brain pleasure, say experts. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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