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Hugging for benefit

Ever since arriving in LA, I've been receiving invites to Cuddle Parties, gatherings I can't help but regard with suspicion, despite the "cuddlemonials." I came close to going a few times, but my co-conspirators always dissolved at the last minute.

Earlier this year, a UK study led by primatologist Filippo Aureli found that spider monkeys in rival gangs were observed hugging each other to ease tensions, but also perhaps to size-up physical vulnerabilities in their opponents. Another study recently performed by Dr. Kathleen Light at UNC Chapel Hill showed increased levels of oxytocin, a pituitary hormone produced only in mammals, after "warm contact" situations--but only if each partner considered the other "supportive." So...I'm not sure I'd necessarily be able to lower my blood pressure at a Cuddle Party, but I am insanely curious and would love to prove to myself that it's not some Studio 54 backroom or in any other way illicit. You can browse their list of rules here (my favorite was "Rule # 2 - You don't have to cuddle anyone at a Cuddle Party, ever"). Are there Cuddle Partiers among us, or, alternately, people against the allegedly healing benefits of touching?

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Animals
This Is the Age When Puppies Reach 'Peak Cuteness'
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All puppies are cute, but at some point in a young dog's life, it goes from "It's so cute I could squeeze it to death" to merely regular cute. But when? According to one recent study in the journal Anthrozoös, peak cuteness hits between 6 and 8 weeks old for many dogs, The Washington Post reports.

Finding out when puppies reach their peak attractiveness to humans may give us insights into how domestic dogs evolved. Researchers from the University of Florida asked 51 students at the school to look at 39 black-and-white images of dogs, who belonged to three different breeds and whose ages ranged from birth to 8 months. The viewers then rated them on a sliding scale of squishability.

The results will sound familiar to dog lovers. Puppies aren't entirely adorable immediately after they're born—they can look a little rat-like—and the participants rated them accordingly. As dogs get older, as much as we might love them, their squee-worthy cuteness declines, as the attractiveness scores reflected. The sweet spot, it turns out, is right around when puppies are being weaned, or between 6 and 8 weeks old.

The participants tended to rate dogs as most attractive when the pups were within the first 10 weeks of their lives. According to the results, Cane Corsos were at their cutest around 6.3 weeks old, Jack Russell terriers at 7.7 weeks old, and white shepherds at 8.3 weeks.

The study only used still photos of a few breeds, and it's possible that with a more diverse sample, the time of peak cuteness might vary a bit. Certain puppies might be cuter at an older age, and certain puppies might be cuter when they're even younger. But weaning age happens to coincide with the time when puppies are no longer getting as much support from their mothers, and are thus at a high risk of mortality. By evolving to attract human support at a time when they're most vulnerable, puppies might have boosted their chance at survival until they were old enough to completely take care of themselves.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversation that one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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