Why cute animals are good for your brain
Welcome back to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forwarded by a friend? Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
Your brain on adorable animals 🐶
I had a rough couple of days last week, feeling existential despair about the fires in the west, the never-ending pandemic, and the pending election. (Know the feeling? Whether you call it our brains’ “window of tolerance” or “surge capacity,” we are in way over our heads here.) So I turned to a classic coping technique and asked friends and strangers on the internet to send me pictures of cute baby animals.
And it worked! Part of the mood boost came from the kindness of people reaching out (it’s always good to be reminded that there are nice people in the world who care), but a big component was filling my feed with snuggly, goofy, adorable animals.
- Turns out there’s real research to back up this benefit. Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor of communications at the University of Indiana, ran a study to find out why people watch cat videos online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that looking at adorable felines measurably boosted people’s moods. Specifically, people reported feeling more hope, happiness, and contentment; less anxiety, annoyance, sadness, and guilt; and they felt more energized afterward. Pharmaceutical executives are salivating over these effects.
- In the brain, looking at dogs, especially your own, activates the emotion and reward circuits. Petting a dog does one better, lowering the stress chemical cortisol and elevating levels of the neurochemicals dopamine and oxytocin, which are associated with feelings of reward and bonding, respectively. And don’t worry, your dog really does love you back — dogs show a similar increase in oxytocin when looking into their owner’s eyes.
- Maybe this research is too obvious — of course looking at and playing with animals makes you happier! But did you know it can make you better at your job, too? Several studies have shown that people are more precise and make fewer mistakes on various cognitive and dexterity tasks after viewing pictures of puppies and kittens.
- Like most things in life, scientists think your brain’s response to adorable animals comes back to evolution and procreation. Animals, especially young ones, trigger baby schema: the large eyes and soft, small body that represent “infant human” in the brain. Those traits are naturally rewarding to people and automatically make you want to approach, care, and protect, which is good because babies obviously need a lot of that to keep them alive.
This made me think of the dark side of the cute response
Maybe not 2020 dark, but some people have what’s called cuteness aggression (seriously, it’s a technical term). Ever feel like a baby was so cute you wanted to eat its toes? Or a puppy was so adorable you could just crush its little skull? That twisted urge for violence toward lovable creatures is a real thing that scientists have studied. It happens when your brain is overwhelmed and literally cannot handle the cuteness.
The theory is that there is too much activity in the emotion and reward regions, so the brain starts to recruit negative, opposing feelings to calm itself down. If you’re too overcome by a baby’s cuteness, you won’t be able to care for it properly, so your brain tries to dial back the giddiness by tapping into the opposing emotion. Social psychologist Oriana Aragón, who’s credited with first researching the phenomenon, writes, “Dimorphous expressions of emotion may help regulate emotions, possibly through balancing one emotion with the expression of another.”
For my fellow brainiacs
- 🤡 Scientists have mapped how the psychedelic drug LSD binds to serotonin receptors in the brain. Activation of the neurotransmitter is thought to be how the drug causes hallucinations.
- 😢 A gutting article in the Washington Post described the devastating effects the pandemic is having on people with dementia, including 13,200 more dementia-related deaths than previous years.
- 🤨 The 30th Ig Nobel Awards took place last week, celebrating scientists who’ve conducted the most “improbable” research. The psychology prize was given for a study linking distinctive eyebrows with narcissism.