6 Reasons Why We Love Small, Cute Things, According to Science

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iStock

The feeling that something is cute can be hard to explain, especially from a scientific standpoint. While more than 1000 research studies have been conducted on emotions such as fear, fewer than 10 have focused on what we think is “cute”—despite the prevalence of cuteness in marketing, fashion, and design. One thing we do know: Cuteness is connected to size, and small things are far more likely to be considered cute (and squeezable) than large ones are. Here's what science has to say about why we're drawn to all things "smol"—whether they're puppies, kittens, babies, dollhouses, tiny foods, or figurines—and the effect they have on us.

1. WE'RE NURTURERS BY NATURE …

orange and white kitten sits next to brown and white puppy
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In 1943, Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology (animal behavior), proposed that features like a rounded head, small size, and big eyes—what are called neotenic, or baby-animal, characteristics—promote parental care. This nurturing response can serve to enhance offspring survival, and has been described as a fundamental function of human social cognition. Recent studies have extended the concept of cuteness to auditory and olfactory cues (baby laughter, or that amazing new baby smell) that prompt affection and caregiving.

Interestingly, some research suggests that we don’t just think that small things are cute, but also that cute things are smaller than their actual size. For instance, mothers misperceive their youngest kids as much shorter than they are in reality, an illusion that may result in their allocating greater care and resources to the last-born child.

2. … AND SMALL THINGS MAKE US ACT WITH CARE.

miniature garden furniture with tea service and flowers
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Cuteness motivates us to protect the object of our affection, turning us into focused, gentle caretakers. In a 2009 study, scientists reported that participants that viewed very cute images of puppies and kittens performed better in the children’s game Operation than participants that saw less cute images of dogs and cats. Subsequent research, by Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University in Japan, found that cuteness improves our performance at times when we need to be careful: Flimsy tiny furniture and other miniature collectibles may seem cute because we know that they could break unless we handle them delicately.

3. WE LIKE THAT THEY CAN'T HURT US.

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Cuteness in human infants has been linked to their helplessness. Small objects, by virtue of their size, tend to pose little danger. “One of the critical features that make a thing cute is the absence of feeling threatened. Small things are likely to meet this condition,” Nittono tells Mental Floss.

4. WE LOVE TOYS, NO MATTER OUR AGE.

fiat toy car against blue sky background
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Cuteness extends to inanimate objects such as dolls and other toys. Teddy bears have changed over time to look cuter and more baby-like, and a similar anthropomorphic process has affected the "faces" of cars. Miniatures may look cute, in addition, because we connect them with toys and child play. Because young children are cute, their toys and other possessions may become cute by association.

Of course, big things can be cute as well, Nittono says, especially if they possess other baby-like characteristics: “You may find a big, human-sized teddy bear to be cute—sometimes cuter than a small one.”

5. WE WANT TO BE IN CONTROL.

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As Bustle reported, miniature dollhouses and buildings allow their owners to escape into scenarios that are vastly different from their everyday lives, and which they can command completely. “The famous psychologist Dr. Ruth,” writes JR Thorpe, “had a therapy dollhouse with which she helped children to work through serious issues.” The houses were also beneficial for the doctor herself because they “represented a control that she, as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis, had lacked.”

6. THEY'RE LOADED WITH COMPLEX DETAILS OUR BRAINS ARE DRAWN TO.

multicolored russian nesting dolls
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Miniatures are compact: They condense lots of intricate visuals within a very limited space. That richness of features makes them highly appealing to our senses. Research has shown that our gaze—and likely our touch too—is drawn to the regions of a scene or object that hold the most information. Part of our attraction to miniatures may be that they provide our sensory-seeking brains with highly concentrated dosages of tantalizing stimulation.

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

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iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
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It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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