London | Smitten by a baby’s chubby cheeks, infectious laugh and captivating smell? Oxford scientists have found these features contribute to ‘cuteness’ and trigger our caregiving behaviours, which is vital for infants as they need constant attention to survive and thrive.
While we have long known that babies look cute, researchers have found that cuteness is designed to appeal to all our senses. Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour, said Morten Kringelbach, from University of Oxford in the UK, who led the research.
Reviewing the emerging literature on how cute infants and animals affect the brain, the team found that cuteness supports key parental capacities by igniting fast privileged neural activity followed by slower processing in large brain networks also involved in play, empathy and perhaps even higherorder moral emotions.
The data shows that definitions of cuteness should not be limited just to visual features but include positive infant sounds and smells. From an evolutionary standpoint, cuteness is a very potent protective mechanism that ensures survival for otherwise completely dependent infants. This is the first evidence of its kind to show that cuteness helps infants to survive by eliciting caregiving, which cannot be reduced to simple, instinctual behaviours, said Kringelbach.
Instead, caregiving involves a complex choreography of slow, careful, deliberate and longlasting prosocial behaviours, which ignite fundamental brain pleasure systems that are also engaged when eating food or listening to music, and always involve pleasant experiences, he said.
The study shows that cuteness affects both men and women, even those without children. This might be a fundamental response present in everyone, regardless of parental status or gender, and we are currently conducting the first longterm study of what happens to brain responses when we become parents, said Kringelbach.
The study was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
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