Charles Darwin: if there’s one thing everyone knows about this man, it’s his famous theory of evolution.
Survival of the fittest, different species of finches on the Galápagos Islands, etcetera… most have at least heard of these.
But when Darwin spoke about genetics andreproductive fitness, his ideas and theories went beyond the survival patterns of different members of a species: it also included their behavior.
For example, Darwin stated out that there is just something about infants that prompts adults to care for and respond to them, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it…
Could it be because babies are perceived as being cute?
World renowned ethologist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz theorized that infantile features serve as a Kindchenschema, or an “infant/baby schema (mental set)”, that have innate releasing, or activating, mechanisms for affection and nurturing in adult humans.
Basically, a given set of facial and body features that correlate with a infant/baby (making it appear “cute”) consequently activates motivation for caretaking in adults, whether they are related to the child or not.
But what makes someone cute? After all, the concept of something being ‘cute’ or not is quite subjective…
In this case, infantile cuteness and overall “babyish” features would be defined as:
- a relatively large head
- predominance of the brain capsule
- large, round, and low lying eyes
- bulging cheek region
So what is it about the structure of the infant face that evokes parental responses from us?
In an experiment by Glocker et al. in 2009, infant cuteness and caretaking were positively correlated– that is, the two increased and decreased together. If cuteness was judged as being higher for one subject, a higher level of caretaking was seen along with it.
When functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor neural signatures during the experimental phases, baby faces with higher contents of kindchenschema features generated far more activation in the nucleus accumbens (motivation and reward) and the orbitofrontal cortex (a.k.a. OFC, decision making).
The connection was actually biological and neural– not just a preconception and predictions of behavior working with confirmation biases to influence caregivers’ behavior. This means that this “baby schema” response can be crucial to human development: it lays the foundation for the treatment and care one will receive, as well as the relationships between the caretaker and the child.
From an evolutionary perspective, Darwin was right: this neural response increases a child’s chances of survival.
Consider this: sea turtles lay hundreds and hundreds of eggs per mating season, but only 1 of every 1,000 will survive to adulthood. On the other hand, whales have 1 calf at a time– with a very high survival rate to adulthood.
This is because sea turtles do not nurse their offspring, whereas whales do (like humans). Rearing of the young creates a very high probability of survival, and any trait that increases likelihood of receiving care is an increase in fitness. The same goes for human children– if left unattended and uncared for in the world, what do you think the survival rate for an average child in this day and age would be?
In a separate experiment conducted in 2008 by Kringelbach, et al., cuter, more baby-like features were hypothesized to increase these neural activities in frequency as well as to speed them up.
The study focused on the medial OFC, and concluded with the same results as the 2009 Glocker et al. study. Infantile features that were perceived as cute triggered the same very specific and rapid neural signature of activity in the medial OFC– so rapid that it was not under conscious control.
This is significant because this innate response causes an increase in caretaking; in short, we are inclined against our conscious wills to care about babies that we consider cute.
The structural configuration of the babies’ faces acts as a heightened attentional/emotional biasing mechanism… and the MOC provides the necessary attentional and emotional tagging of infant faces that predisposes humans to treat infant faces as special, eliciting affection, nurturing, and general care of young infants.
In summary: infantile features perceived as being ‘cute’ trigger a very specific and rapid neural signature of activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex as a response.
Why is this significant? Well, 13% of mothers will suffer postpartum depression (PPD), usually within the first six weeks after giving birth.
The lack of responsiveness to the infant that results from PPD causes infants to respond adversely, hindering healthy development and negatively affecting all dimensions of the child’s growth.
Depression is linked to the nearby subgenual cingulate cortex, which is coincidentally strongly connected with the medial OFC.
So, if the chemical responses from this baby schema response are indicative of the caregiver’s responsiveness to a child, early identification of families at risk is possible through fMRI tests when viewing PPD through the lens of the current paradigm.
What are your thoughts? Are you more responsive and caring towards children you perceive as being cuter? Tell us in the comment section below.
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