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Big eyes and chubby cheeks help babies to survive as cuteness triggers caregiving behaviour, according to a new study by Oxford University.
The research revealed cuteness is a very potent protective mechanism which ignites ‘fast privileged neural activity followed by slower processing in large brain networks also involved in play, empathy, and perhaps even higher-order moral emotions’.
It is not just visual features which have the power to attract caregiving behaviour but also positive infant sounds and smells. From an evolutionary standpoint, cuteness is a way of ensuring survival for otherwise completely dependent babies.
Morten Kringelbach, who together with Eloise Stark, Catherine Alexander, Professor Marc Bornstein and Professor Alan Stein, led the work in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said: “Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour.”
Professor Kringelbach added: '“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. Instead, caregiving involves a complex choreography of slow, careful, deliberate, and long-lasting prosocial behaviours, which ignite fundamental brain pleasure systems that are also engaged when eating food or listening to music, and always involve pleasant experiences.”
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 long-term study of what happens to brain responses when we become parents.” said Professor Kringelbach.
The paper 'On cuteness: Unlocking the parental brain and beyond' is published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science.