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The Science Behind the Urge to Cuddle Cute Babies

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You don’t have to be a cat person to feel your heart warm up at the sight of a big-eyed, tiny-nosed kitten stumbling across the floor. When confronted with a baby kitty, you may feel the urge to scoop it up and cuddle with it for the rest of the day. This reaction isn’t limited to felines—puppies and even some adult animals trigger these same snuggle instincts. If this feeling sounds familiar, that means your brain is just doing what it evolved to do to preserve the human species.

This episode of the National Geographic video series We’re Wired That Way lays out what's going on in your head when you see something cute. The facial features of most young mammals fall into the same configuration: large round eyes, and small noses, mouths, and chins. This is called kinderschema, and humans are engineered to find it adorable because it can be found in our own babies. When we see a typical baby face, it activates our instincts to nurture and protect while also releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine to reward us for doing so. That way we feel driven to keep babies safe even if they’re not our own, thus boosting their chances of survival and the survival of our species.

Because kinderschema isn’t limited to the human race, we feel this response when looking at non-human baby animals as well. Some mammals, like cats and guinea pigs, retain their kinderschema into adulthood. So next time you let out an involuntary squee at the sight of your pet, remember that you have biology to blame.

[h/t National Geographic]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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