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Why Are Kittens So Cute? Here’s What Science Says

Eleanor Glaum

By Eleanor Glaum

persian kittens

You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see a litter of week-old kittens? The feeling elicits an almost unstoppable desire to pick one up and hold it close. Well, it turns out you may not be able to help yourself.

It’s a reaction that has intrigued scientists for centuries, resulting in more research being conducted on the phenomenon. The consensus among experts in the field is that our response when we see a cute little kitten is hardwired. It all links back to the survival of our species. The response is not limited to kittens. You’ve probably felt it with puppies, other baby animals, and human infants. Read on to discover more about this emotional reaction over which you are powerless!

Why Do We React The Way We Do?

The truth is that we’re hardwired to react to the young of our own species. Compared to the babies of most other species, human infants are utterly helpless and dependent on the care of adults. Adults are evolutionarily programmed to want to protect and nurture young babies and children. This instinctive response, amongst other things, has to do with the facial proportions and symmetry of babies and young children. The term “baby schema” was first used by an Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, in 1943 to describe these proportions.

With the use of magnetoencephalography, scientists have been able to ascertain that upon recognizing the proportions associated with “baby schema,” there is significant activity in the orbitofrontal cortex of a person’s brain. This part of the brain is responsible for experiencing emotion and pleasure. The activity is not observed when a person looks at an adult face that does not exhibit those same proportions.

Studies have shown that this same response is elicited regardless of where these proportions are recognized. That’s why we have the same response to baby kittens; their facial symmetry also represents “baby schema” proportions.

woman holding cute kitten
Image Credit: Nattakorn_Maneerat, Shutterstock

The Cuteness Scale

Scientists developed a way to rate cuteness based on the “baby schema” phenomenon. By artificially manipulating the proportions of the faces of babies, kittens, puppies, other animals, and even inanimate objects, they deduced the proportions that elicit the greatest response.

The proportions that result in big, doe-eyes, chubby cheeks with little noses, and mouths with big, round ears are those that adult humans find irresistible.

Kittens Might Be Cuter Than Babies!

They discovered from this research that kittens, on the whole, may be cuter than babies! That is, of course, in the context of the scientific cuteness rating scale and according to the data they collected and analyzed.

They determined that according to test subjects’ responses, puppies rank just slightly higher than kittens. I’m sure that finding will have cat lovers shaking their heads! Both puppies and kittens rank higher than human babies, and believe it or not, adult dogs also rank slightly higher than human babies! Remember, it’s all about that innate evolutionary response, and we have no say in how our brains react. It might not make perfect sense, and just because our brains respond in a certain way doesn’t mean our actions will necessarily mirror our subliminal brainwaves. They’re merely cues.

Cat and baby
Image Credit: Aynur_sib, Shutterstock

It’s Not Just How Kittens Look That Makes Them Cute

What’s the first thing you do when you pick up a little kitten? Most of us will hold it close to our faces and take in a deep breath of that divine kitten smell. Although it’s not clear exactly why baby animals and human infants have that particular mesmerizing smell, it evokes the same response in the adult human brain receptors as when looking at a baby.

The same effect has been registered for baby animals and human babies’ sounds. Think of a gurgling, giggling baby, and a smile immediately comes to your face. Many of us respond even stronger when a tiny kitten meows in our direction. The immediate reaction is to be drawn to them and want to protect them. We are evolutionarily designed to react in this way.

One possible theory as to why we have the same reaction to animals as we do to our offspring is that they have been a part of our evolution for many thousands of years. Humans have even bred animals that look a particular way, often selectively breeding individuals that are more pleasing to the eye or cuter.

three fluffy ragdoll kittens
Image Credit: dezy, Shutterstock

Those Soothing Purrs

It seems to be our life’s mission to make sure our cat or cats purr as much as possible. We know that cats purr when they’re content, but interestingly, that is not always the case. However, on the whole, a purring kitty is a happy kitty.

Studies have shown that a cat’s purr can stimulate the release of endorphins in humans as well as cats. Endorphins, as we know, are those “feel-good” hormones. Furthermore, the frequency at which a cat’s purr resonates is between 25 and 150Hz. Investigations have indicated that these frequencies can help promote healing and bone growth. It’s no wonder we find them so cute and want to be around them all the time.

Unbeatable Companionship

All any human wants is to be loved. In this respect, you can’t do better than a kitten. In the early days, your kitten loves you because they need you to care for them. It is validating to know that you are needed and relied on.

The benefits of owning and caring for a cat are well-documented. The friendship between your kitty and you is uncomplicated, non-judgmental, and very rewarding. Some studies have even demonstrated that cats know when you are sad. They usually respond appropriately by attempting to comfort you. They may follow you around, sit on you, and talk to you. All these actions let you know they love and value you. The emotional and mental fulfillment from feline companionship is nearly immeasurable.

Little ginger and white kitten playing with the owner's socks
Image Credit: Kseniia Titova, Shutterstock

Wrapping Up

Kittens (and cats) are not only cute but also downright amazing. Whether you own a cat or not, felines have probably brightened your day at some point in your life. They evolved to have an innate response to their cuteness! Jokes aside, the science is clear on the topic. If you’ve ever wondered about it before, now you know that there is an inescapable physiological and chemical reason why we find kittens so cute.

Featured Image Credit: ANURAK PONGPATIMET, Shutterstock

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