Why I want to 'eat' adorable things

Ever since I was a little boy I have had the strangest reaction to adorable things. I always want to squeeze, pinch or bite it. I often say things like ‘you’re so cute I could eat you’ or ‘it’s so adorable I could die’ and I never really understood why. Now that I’m studying neuroscience, I have finally found some answers.


Well, it all comes down to a few key facts about why we find things cute in the first place. Let’s start with our basic desire to pass on our genes. We, like any species, are designed to reproduce and pass on our genetic code. So our bodies have been shaped by evolution for millions of years to make sure that’s we do. Make babies. And lots of them. 


Evolutionary psychologists believe that our concept of ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ things all share common traits – that they kind of look like babies. Think about it: big eyes, big foreheads, little-bulging tummies, round cheeks, small noses and chins... But why are THESE considered cute?


Our brains have developed over millennia to react to features of babies by rewarding us with a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. When we see these traits, our brain releases this chemical, and we get a rush of happiness. An area called the nucleus accumbens is the location in our brain that is essential to our ‘reward pathway’. This is where we find the flooding of dopamine. The nucleus accumbens is part of the very basic brain structure called the basal ganglia and is present in the very earliest of vertebrates (animals with spines). In fact, almost all animals react with dopamine when they see their young or even other babies. Which is why when we see kittens, our brain acts like we’re looking at our own young and you want to love that little thing.  


So, our brains have developed to reward us when we see babies, but it has since morphed into more nurturing and protective instincts. We can thank other areas of our brain for that response. Babies, human or otherwise, look harmless, are less aggressive and are usually quite loving towards us. Combine this with all the warm and fuzzies that dopamine gives us and BAM we can’t help but want to feed and protect those little guys. The smaller, cuter and more harmless they are the more likely we are to love and take care of them and keep them alive. If it’s our own children, we increase our chances of passing on our genes. 


But what about my problem that when I see a cute baby all I want to do is pinch its cheeks/give it a little nibble? Isn’t that counterproductive to keeping it alive and well? Apparently not. There’s even a name for that. It’s called cute aggression. It’s so common, there’s a word for it in Tagalog ‘gigil’ which means the grinding of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is ridiculously cute. This type of weird opposite-expression – called dimorphic (di- meaning two, morphic- meaning form) expression -  is quite common. Like when you cry when you’re happy or when you laugh when you’re nervous. Some psychologists think the dimorphic expression is a better way of coping with strong emotions. That way, we can adapt quicker to a situation. Others think it’s our actual frustrations coming out – that we can’t actually squeeze/eat the adorable little thing. Either way, I am just glad I’m not the only one.