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Geek Answers: Why do we have a strong reaction to cuteness?




In my part of the world, we call it the monies. Its that feeling you get when you see something so unutterably cute that you almost want to hurt it. You know, hug it until its eyes pop out of its stupid, cute face and it just smooshes. Its one of the many examples of crossed wires in the brain happiness can evoke tears, pain can become sexual pleasure. It seems that in the right situation, strong enough emotions of any kind can overload the brain and spill over to create other, less targeted reactions.

But why do we have such a strong reaction to cuteness and why do we find some things cute, and other hideous? The latter is easy enough, actually; we tend to be repulsed by things that are either potentially dangerous or inherently pestilential. But why this odd cuteness reaction?

Evolutionary psychologists believe it all basically comes back to babies. Human babies have a totally unprecedented level of uselessness. Only a few species of animal, like pandas and whales, even come close. A human newborn doesnt even have a neck that can support the weight of its own head, while newborn gazelles can run at a decent speed just minutes out of the womb. In a very real way, human babies arent fully formed when theyre born, and we would likely have a longer than 9-month stay in the womb if the human hip structure would allow it. Our brains got bigger faster than our birth canals, and as a result we do a good amount of our fetal development externally.

Our brains are so wired for this type of thinking that even marshmallows can become adorable.

Our brains are so wired for this type of thinking that even marshmallows can become adorable.

That being the case, the species had to evolve some serious incentives to take care of the little blighters. Parental, particularly motherly, love is a near-constant in even mammals, but humans are social creatures that live in communities. It takes a village, as they say. So it was beneficial for every human to have some in-born appreciation for the physical markers of baby-hood, or at least an in-born aversion to seeing them come to harm. A big head relative to boy size. Large eyes set low in a round face. Imprecise limbs that flop around and lead to a wobbling gait. Collectively, these traits are known as neoteny, the physiology of youth.

But evolution paints with a broad brush; when it gives us a chemical incentive to look for food, it doesnt account for what might happen if we always have access to more food than we need. Similarly, it can only give us an incentive to like neotenous features. If those features show up on, say, a panda cub, we have much the same reaction. The features exist in nature for the same reasons they exist in human babies: thats the way young mammals look, though we have of course bred certain pet species to pump up their pedomorphic features.

The origin of our reaction, though, most likely lies with our own young.

Now read: Why are all planets spheres?


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