Cuteness as a survival weapon

By Morgan Sherburne • Published: September 6th, 2016
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Babies are almost impossible to resist, especially with their big eye-size-to-head ratio and gummy grins.

Previous research suggested that this is an evolutionary trick to keep parents interested in keeping a baby alive. Now, researchers think babies are even more adept at triggering parental instincts. Not only are their facial features meant to trigger a protective parenting response, their smell and the sounds they make also may be doing the same.

During the study, participants were shown photographs of 27 infants who were smiling, crying or had a neutral face. The participants then rated the pictures. The researchers repeated this process with photos of adult faces.

While they were evaluating the photos, the researchers measured the participants’ brain activity. The area of the brain associated with reward lights up quickly — in under a second — for the baby photos, but not for photos of adults. The findings by researchers in England and the United States were published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Other research has found that when oxytocin is released in the brains of women listening to babies laughing and babbling, activity in the part of the brain that governs fear and anxiety is reduced.

And another recent study has shown that the smell of babies lights up the same pleasure pathways in the brain as good food or cocaine.

The bad news? As babies age into young adults and then adults, they lose their cuteness. But by then, the growing human is hopefully quick enough on its feet to fight off a saber-tooth tiger — or its modern-day equivalent.