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How the Cute Pikachu Is a Chocolate Milkshake for the Brain
Cute things are usually vulnerable, fragile, and weak. But cuteness itself is mighty indeed.
Cute things are usually vulnerable, fragile, and weak. But cuteness itself is mighty indeed.
Cute things are usually vulnerable, fragile and weak. But cuteness itself is mighty indeed. Morten L Kringelbach and his colleagues at the University of Oxford recently described cuteness as ‘one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour’. And yet, despite its elemental importance, cuteness might be a fluid, evolving concept and trait.
The word emerged as a shortened form of the word ‘acute’, originally meaning sharp, clever or shrewd. Schoolboys in the United States began using cute to mean pretty or attractive in the early 19th century. But cuteness also implies weakness. Mignon, the French word for cute or dainty, is the origin of the English word ‘minion’, a weak follower or underling. Kawaii, a Japanese word referring to a similar concept, appears to have been first used in the 11th century to mean pitiable.
Yet the mascots of Japanese kawaii today are not always so pitiable. Pikachu, a rat-like creature from the videogame franchise Pokémon, can conjure bolts of searing electricity to attack opponents. But Pikachu’s infantile features – large eyes, plump red cheeks and a disproportionately large head – make this not-so-pitiable Pokémon paradoxically innocent, lovable and cute.
Cuteness could be an evolving linguistic concept because its defining characteristics were perhaps considered obvious or even ineffable for much of history. It was not until the 20th century that the Nobel laureates Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen described the ‘infant schema’ that humans find cute or endearing: round eyes, chubby cheeks, high eyebrows, a small chin and a high head-to-body-size ratio. These features serve an important evolutionary purpose by helping the brain recognise helpless infants who need our attention and affection for their survival.
In fact, cute judgments might be fundamental to human perception. Examining magnetic brain activity in subjects presented with infant and adult faces, Kringelbach and his colleagues at Oxford have found that the brain starts recognising faces as cute or infantile in less than a seventh of a second after the face is presented to subjects. His group has concluded that cuteness is a key that unlocks the brain’s fast attentional resources before also influencing slower brain networks responsible for compassion and empathy.
If cuteness is such an important key, might a locksmith counterfeit a master key? Decades ago, Lorenz and Tinbergen also introduced the concept of a supernormal stimulus: a stimulus far more salient or intense than any occurring in nature. In a classic experiment, Tinbergen discovered that geese preferred to roll volleyballs towards their nests over real goose eggs. In fact, volleyballs are supernormal stimuli because their big, round, white shape is more egg-like than real goose eggs.
Similarly, Pikachu’s baby-like features might exceed those of real infants, making the character a supernormal stimulus: unbearably adorable, but without the high maintenance of a real baby. Needless to say, our ‘sense of cute’ did not evolve to nurture faux animals such as Pikachu, but our brains have been hijacked nonetheless by the unnaturally big eyes and childlike features of such cute characters. Similarly, our ability to sense sugar in food did not evolve for us to enjoy chocolate milkshakes, but to steer us towards naturally occurring sources of sugar in fruit and other foods.
Cute cartoon characters, junk food, videogames and other supernatural stimuli might engage the nucleus accumbens, a critical piece of neural machinery in the brain’s reward circuit. The nucleus accumbens contains neurons that release dopamine, a brain chemical that, among other things, encodes such stimuli. Much like drugs of abuse, supernormal stimuli are hypothesised to activate the nucleus accumbens, directing the brain’s full attention towards the reward in question. An international team of researchers studied the phenomenon by artificially manipulating the infant schema of baby faces in photographs to create what might be considered supernormal stimuli – faces more or less baby-faced, or cute, than a normal infant might appear. Women were presented with the real and manipulated images while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As the researchers hypothesised, the heightening or diminishment of cuteness had a significant effect on metabolic activity in the nucleus accumbens, suggesting that this brain region both responds to supernormal stimuli and plays a crucial role in triggering altruistic, nurturing behaviour towards babies.
Other supernormal stimuli, such as refined sugar, can activate the brain’s reward circuitry in a similar manner. Research at Pennsylvania State University has also shown that dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens of lab rats is proportional to the amount of sugar-water that the rats ingested. Similarly, researchers in Oregon have shown abnormal brain activity in the caudate nucleus – a brain region adjacent to the nucleus accumbens, and also involved in reward – when obese adolescent girls consume a chocolate milkshake. It seems that infant cuteness, sugar content and other rewarding stimuli can all be manipulated to give privileged access to the brain’s attentional system. In the brain’s reward circuit, Pikachu is a chocolate milkshake.
These heightened stimuli seem to throw the brain’s concerns into disarray. But even before videogame characters and unhealthy foods wrestled our attention from helpless babies and wholesome foods, cats, dogs and other pets found a strange way of winning important resources from humans. Perhaps Kringelbach and colleagues are justified in calling cuteness a ‘Trojan horse’. Why do humans feel the need to nurture other species? Why are puppies, kittens and bunnies sometimes cuter than babies?
Studying infant development might help us find answers. Unlike other mammals, humans are born with underdeveloped brains so that the cranium can fit through the mother’s birth canal. This also allows for shorter pregnancies, decreasing the burden on the mother. As babies mature into toddlers, they are perceived as being cuter – despite being less helpless than neonates – presumably due to a temporary exaggeration of infantile facial features. Dogs, on the other hand, mature faster after birth, going from blind pups to cute, doggie-eyed puppies in a mere two weeks.
And so, in a strange quirk of evolutionary psychology, canines and felines have won almost the same attention from humans as our own offspring. Indeed, the science of cuteness is simultaneously intuitive and bizarre. Two hundred years ago, cuteness might have still been an emerging linguistic concept in English. Today, it is recognised as a fast ticket to crucial neural resources that control attention, love and caring.
Research into infantile appearance reveals the chilling superficiality of human affection. Why can’t love be won based on deeper criteria? But like a biological computer, the brain needs heuristics – a set of programmed guidelines – to identify beings that are likely to be helpless, needy infants. Kringelbach and his colleagues hope that understanding these heuristics will help us come up with a way of relieving the effects of cleft lip and postpartum depression on the mother-child relationship. Or, perhaps such knowledge will spell the ingredients for a cuter Pokémon. Either way, with an increased cultural awareness of cuteness, bigger eyes and rounder faces are here to stay.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
A neuroscientist argues that da Vinci shared a disorder with Picasso and Rembrandt.
- A neuroscientist at the City University of London proposes that Leonardo da Vinci may have had exotropia, allowing him to see the world with impaired depth perception.
- If true, it means that Da Vinci would have been able to see the images he wanted to paint as they would have appeared on a flat surface.
- The finding reminds us that sometimes looking at the world in a different way can have fantastic results.
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3Mjc2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTA4MDg2NH0.T-98YvLjS9mUCQkgqHyV43Q7h_JIiubrev-Fp_0j4Pg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C38%2C0%2C579&height=700" id="58346" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="674799ba34e115a2e9a3e94c366bfc26" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Virtuvian Man. Christopher Tyler suggests that Da Vinci used his own image as a template for the face in the drawing.
Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci created c. 1480–1490<p><a href="https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/christopher-tyler" target="_blank">Professor Christopher Tyler</a> of the City University of London's optometry division analyzed six pieces of Renaissance art by or held to be images of Da Vinci, including the famous <em>Vitruvian Man. </em>By looking at the paintings, drawings, and statues and applying the same techniques optometrists use on patients, Tyler was able to conclude that the eyes of the men depicted were misaligned.</p><p> He concluded that, if the images he analyzed were truly reflective of how Da Vinci looked, that the great artist had a mild case of exotropia. </p>
How would this have helped him paint?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b221010aa7688734d4d6a41f0df5933f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/j6F-sHhmfrY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://shileyeye.ucsd.edu/faculty/shira-robbins" target="_blank">Shira Robbins</a>, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at San Diego, who was not involved with the project, explained to <em><a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/19/leonardo-da-vincis-genius-may-be-rooted-in-a-common-eye-disorder-new-study-says/?utm_term=.d3f44ed91c16" target="_blank">The Washington Post</a> </em>how individuals with exotropia often turn to additional information to help understand the world around them:</p><blockquote>"What happens in some people is when they're only using one eye . . . they develop other cues besides traditional depth perception to understand where things are in space, looking at color and shadow in a way that most of us who use both eyes at a time don't really appreciate." </blockquote><p>Dr. Robbins agrees that, if the artworks analyzed accurately depict Da Vinci, then he probably had exotropia.</p><p>If Da Vinci did have a mild form of the condition, which would allow him to focus with both eyes when concentrating and with one when relaxed, Tyler asserts that the famed artist could have viewed the world in two or three dimensions at will, showing him the world exactly as he would need to recreate it on a flat surface. Quite the superpower for an artist.</p>
Does this mean Da Vinci would have been a hack if he had normal eyesight?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3MjY5NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjYwOTgxOH0.eSu3YBpCuaDj59-4lzSeZ1WgwtV2ETGiWHqczzW3how/img.png?width=980" id="9c323" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="edd4e9e9d9c1156a53242df6288d7cc0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the difference in where each eye is focused for each painting, drawing, and statue used in the study. The larger the difference, the more pronounced the exotropia is in the image.<p>Not at all. What Dr. Tyler is suggesting is that the tendency of people who have exotropia to rely on using one eye to see the world and thereby lose some depth perception allowed Da Vinci to understand better how the three-dimensional objects in the world could be translated into a two-dimensional image on a canvas. This could account for some of Da Vinci's skill in depicting shadow and subtle changes in color, since he would have relied on these details to understand the world. <br><br>His polymathic brilliance extended far beyond art, and nobody is claiming that his ideas for flying machines, tanks, or <a href="http://www.da-vinci-inventions.com/davinci-inventions.aspx" target="_blank">other inventions </a>were at all influenced by a vision problem.</p>
How can we know this? He has been dead for five hundred years.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c26fc51b0aebbcd6905593015fec79e5"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LRAptNtN9-A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>There are reasons to be cautious anytime we make claims about people who are long dead. In this case, we have the bonus problem that we aren't 100 percent sure that the images used are supposed to look like Da Vinci. </p><p> That is the major caveat of the idea; all of the images used as evidence of his condition are assumed to look like him. While some of the images, like the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Verrocchio)" target="_blank"><em>David</em> by Andrea del Verrocchio</a>, are generally agreed to be based on Leonardo the other pictures are claimed to be reflective of him based only on his statement that "[The soul] guides the painter's arm and makes him reproduce himself, since it appears to the soul that this is the best way to represent a human being." </p><p>Tyler also argues that the portraits he claims are based on Da Vinci share similarities with the images generally accepted to be portraits of him; including similar hair and facial features. This lends weight to the idea that the artist incorporated his own traits into his artwork, including his vision problem. </p><p>Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses of all time. If he had exotropia, then it was merely a minor addition to his artistic skills. It does, however, give us a literal example of how people who look at the world differently can use that vantage point to their advantage to create things we all can appreciate. </p>
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
Be fruitful and multiply<p>Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.</p><p>In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring. </p><p>Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each <a href="https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/37/6/1408/729795" target="_blank">child</a>. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-016-0471-0" target="_blank">additional sibling they have</a>. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores. </p><p>Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn't have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother's social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children's test scores. However, this association was small, didn't show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables. </p> These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate. <br> <br> Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15327957pspr0904_5" target="_blank">previous studies</a> and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
So, how quickly should I join a local religious group?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="6RrmYM8M" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9eb4740a7d1e10108a75fd2ed627a90f"> <div id="botr_6RrmYM8M_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/6RrmYM8M-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.</p><p>These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.</p><p>This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.</p><p>However, the researchers' hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families. </p>
The community religion offers<p>As we've mentioned <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/what-is-secular-humanism" target="_blank">before</a>, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.</p><p>While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research. </p><p>The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612472910" target="_blank">group trust</a> and <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069397103037002003" target="_blank">cooperation</a> are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications. </p><p>While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world. </p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>