Big eyes, bigger heads and squishy little noses. The physical characteristics that make babies so squeezable are called the Kindchenschema, and they keep parents all over the animal kingdom from leaving stinky infants to their own devices. But research suggests that this cuteness does more than just tell your lizard brain that the squirming screamer in your arms is important. "Cute" could actually be a complex, multi-sensory attack that babies have evolved to hijack your brain.
Cute is a long-standing interest of Morten Kringelbach of Oxford University. Several years ago, he found that folks presented with images of babies had activity spikes in regions of the brain associated with emotion and pleasure within just a few milliseconds – right around the time the information reached visual centers.
The results astounded him. It's well accepted that babies are designed to grab attention – an evolutionary development that keeps our harmless young from dying out and driving our species to extinction – but he expected signs of this to pop up a step or two after the baby was recognized by the conscious brain.
"Almost before you're consciously aware that you're looking at anything at all, you cannot help but feel compelled by that baby," he said.
And this cuteness short circuit was disturbingly fickle: When he repeated the experiment with images of children with minor facial deformities such as a cleft lip, the reaction slowed. That made him think about all the ways this caregiving urge can fail to emerge, and he wondered whether a better understanding of the cognitive processes behind cute might help parents in trouble.
On Monday, Kringelbach and his colleagues published a review of all the latest literature on this weird cute phenomenon, including much of their own work. They argue that the traits that make up the Kindchenschema are far more complex (and insidious) than we usually give them credit for.
"There's something privileged about the way babies get into the brain," he said. "It's like they have privileged access."
For starters, it works on everyone, not just parents (and not just women). And it's not just about visuals.
"Crying isn't seen as cute," Kringelbach said, "but it uses these same mechanisms." A crying baby gets into your head, no matter whom the child belongs to. That screaming newborn on an airplane isn't annoying because she's loud, but because your brain won't let you focus on anything else while she's wailing for attention (and maybe also because she's loud).
Although work on olfactory factors is still in its infancy – it's hard to do the requisite brain scan, because "you just can't bottle that baby smell" – preliminary evidence suggests it plays a role as well. Touch is similarly hard to study in a brain scanner, he added, but let's be real: Baby humans are basically warm cuddle nuggets covered in peach-soft skin, and you don't stand a chance.
"Taste is probably very important as well," Kringelbach said, pointing out that taste and smell are closely related in our sensory perception of the world. He remembers the spellbinding scents of his own children. "There's something about bringing them close and smelling the fontanelle, you know, before it closes, there's just something about that smell," he said. "If you could bottle that you'd make a lot of money." (And launch a lot of brain scanning experiments, probably.)
Based on the scientific literature, the study authors think this multi-pronged attack – after entering the brain with amazing speed – triggers slower brain processing to facilitate parental learning and emotional bonding. It's not enough for a baby's request to jump to the front of the brain queue: It has to go somewhere useful.
"We argued here that cuteness goes beyond an attention-grabbing evolutionary strategy that infants use to attract care and protection," the researchers write in the study. "Instead, like a Trojan horse, cuteness opens doors that might otherwise remain shut."
The care that infants need can't be covered by instinctive responses such as "Look at me now and try to keep me from getting eaten by something." Kringelbach and his colleagues think that the slower brain activities that allow parents to actually, you know, parent, are unlocked by the lightening-quick infiltration of cuteness.
Some research on men and women with postnatal depression has suggested that these sensory attacks don't always hit their mark.
"We’ve shown for instance that if you listen to a baby cry, the higher pitched it is the more you think the baby’s distressed," Kringelbach explained. "If you’re depressed, you don’t seem to catch that cue. You have to be in the right frame of mind to catch these signals."
"If we can focus on how cute works and when it doesn't works, perhaps we could find ways to help mothers and fathers do that," he said.
And Kringelbach sees another way that cuteness can unlock long-term effects: It can help build empathy, even during moments of utter despair. He and his co-authors cite the 2015 drowning of a Syrian toddler in the Mediterranean Sea as a tragic example of the power of this evolutionary pull to care for our young.
"In a situation like the refugee crisis, our initial instinct is so often to form in-groups and out-groups," he said.
"It’s difficult to find something that really truly motivates us to be compassionate for those we see as the other."
But a photo of the dead child evoked a deep empathy that crossed borders.
"We can't help ourselves, no matter what our preconceptions," Kringelbach said. "Most of the time that's a good thing."
It seems that humans are more willing to think positively of a strange baby than a strange adult, even when they see the group to which they both belong as one of dangerous outsiders. To Kringelbach, this really drives home the point that babies aren't just designed to enthrall their parents, but to make all of human society want to keep them safe. When you're a species that gives birth to young as helpless as our own, that's the only evolutionary strategy that makes sense.
"We have to be able to eat, which is why it gives us pleasure, we have to make babies, so that gives us pleasure, but we also have to keep those babies alive," Kringelbach said.