This is your brain on puppies: The adorable neuroscience of cuteness
Here's what happens in the mind when you encounter cuteness – and why puppies and kitties are scientifically cuter than babies.
What’s the cutest thing you can think of right now? Puppies? Kittens? Your own child, or, much more likely, Baby Yoda?
Whatever you chose, be warned: that adorable thing has hacked your brain. In fact, just glimpsing at it will trigger an innate caregiving mechanism, a neurological response that’s been sharpened across thousands of years of human evolution.
“Ultimately, this cuteness response is an important adaptation for us. Without it, I simply don’t think we’d survive as a species,” says Morten Kringelbach, Professor of neuroscience at the Universities of Oxford and Aarhus (Denmark).
“Human beings basically have a response to what we call ‘cuteness’ as we come to the world too early. We’re not quite cooked. Most animals can immediately get up and walk around after birth. We can’t. We need a lot of care – and need to make sure our young are appealing enough to receive it.”
This theory is much more than speculation. Thanks to the development of new brain-scanning techniques – including magnetoencephalography (neuroimaging that maps your mind’s activity over milliseconds using magnetic fields) – researchers have gained extraordinary insights into how our instinctual reaction to cuteness works.
But what exactly happens in the brain when we gaze at a baby? And why do we respond the same way to the offspring of other animals? Get in the know below. Or just scroll down for more cute baby pictures – that’s what you’re adapted for, after all.
More like this
How does the brain respond to cuteness?
As Kringelbach’s breakthrough research demonstrated, if you stare at a baby’s face, your brain will actually process it very differently to the face of an adult.
“If you look at a fully-grown person, there’s first activity in the retina of your eyes, immediately transferred to the brain regions in the back of your brain. Here your brain makes sense of what you’re seeing and where. There is a special part of the brain, the fusiform face area that responds maximally to faces. However, when you look at babies, there’s activity in your orbitofrontal cortex (an area strongly involved in emotions and pleasures, located just above your eyeballs) at the same time as the activity in the fusiform face area,” he explains.
“In this way, cute babies essentially have a very quick and privileged way of entering our consciousness. They grab our attention so quickly that you are not yet conscious of it – after a seventh of a second of seeing a baby, you get this wave of brain activity that says ‘Woah, that’s a baby! I need to care for it!’”
Researchers have even developed a cuteness rating system based on objective measurements including the proportion of forehead to overall face, cheek chubbiness, and how big the eyes are.
In addition, scientists have found artificially boosting a baby’s cuteness score using photo-editing software could elicit a stronger cuteness response in humans. Adorability, in other words, can be engineered.
But although you might need a bit of computer wizardry to increase your cuteness score, lowering it simply takes a bit of ageing.
“When you’re an infant, you have a high cuteness rating, but this lowers as you get older and those proportions change. With age, suddenly facial features no longer grab us in the same way – it doesn’t elicit the same selective attentional response,” says Kringelbach.
Read more about the science of babies:
However, cuteness isn’t all about sight. As Kringelbach’s research has highlighted, sounds can also trigger the same cuteness response in the brain. “Sounds like laughing babies can elicit a big response in your reward centre. If you ever need your Monday fix, just type ‘laughing babies’ into YouTube!” he says.
And there’s smell – a whiff of a baby’s head can also prompt the same reaction in the reward centre. “At that point in a human’s life, the skull hasn’t closed – the fontanelle [the soft spot on a baby's head] is still there. The exact smell is something hard to quantify, but we are working on it!” says Kringelbach.
Why do people find puppies and kittens cuter than babies?
Remember that objective cuteness scale we mentioned above? Well, on average, puppies and kittens scored higher on this scale than humans. (Congratulations to all dog lovers: puppies were generally found to be marginally cuter than kittens, with adult dogs also still slightly cuter than babies).
We know what you’re thinking here: why have humans evolved to find baby animals cuter than our own? One answer is that humans have had immense control over the evolution of domesticated cats and dogs, changing their appearance over generations through selective breeding.
“Animals like dogs and cats have been essentially bred to look like babies,” says Kringelbach. “They have the big eyes, they have the big ears. When you see them, your brain is thinking ‘this could be a baby’. And it’s only later on, by the time you already have reacted, you say ‘oh, that's not a baby. But maybe I should still look anyway!'
“It’s amazing our reaction to cuteness, something that can propagate our species, is useful to other animals too. But it’s important to remember they don’t do it in a conscious or malicious way!”
But there’s evidence fictional characters have been changed in the same way. Mickey Mouse and even standard teddy bears have been shown to adopt more infant – and cuter – facial features over the past several decades.
“Although these child-like features are a big part of Japanese subcultures like ‘Kawaii’ (roughly translating to ‘cute’), there are a lot of Kawaii-seeming characters here too. Just look at Baby Yoda!” says Kringelbach.
Do certain people really find babies cuter than others?
Women find babies much cuter than men do: it’s a stereotype that’s perpetuated in everything from classic literature to questionable rom-coms. But, according to Kringelbach, it just isn’t true.
“I’ve seen a lot of men who will say ‘I don’t find babies cute’. In fact, as part of experiments, men are significantly less likely to say they find a certain baby cute. But things change if you put men in a game where they have to use a keyboard to keep a picture baby on a screen (a new picture shows if they fail)," he says.
"There is no difference between men and women: in this study, both didn’t work too hard to keep a less cute baby on screen, but worked hard to keep a cute one there. Men and women performed proportionally, in this respect. And studies have not found differences between in the brains of men and women to infant faces.
“This makes me think it’s just a social thing – that men are so unwilling to admit they find things cute.”
In short, if you’re a man reading this and you usually shy away from cuteness, it’s time to stand up, grow up and just admit you’d flipping love to smoosh the ickle little kitty below.
Awwh, look at the pawsies!
About our expert – Prof Morten KringelbachMorten Kringelbach is a professor of neuroscience at Denmark's Aarhus University, Denmark and the University of Oxford. His research covers hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (the life well-lived).
Read more about the science of dogs and cats:
Thomas is a Staff Writer at BBC Science Focus and looks after all things Q&A. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards.