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Watching cute cat videos is instinctive and good for you -- seriously

Story highlights

  • Humans are attracted to beings with large eyes, chubby cheeks, big foreheads
  • Cuteness may be tied to human survival
  • Study finds that cuteness can increase focus

(CNN)More than 219 million viewers have logged on to watch a 16-second clip of a sneezing baby panda scare its mom. At a minimum, that's 58 million minutes, or 111 years, spent watching this viral sensation.

There is a whole channel on YouTube devoted to the adventures of tiny hamsters eating tiny food, celebrating tiny birthdays, and having a tiki party. The channel has had more than 29 million views.
Lil Bub, a rescued orphan kitty with an extreme case of dwarfism, is an internet sensation. What started as a photo Tumblr called the "BuBlog," has turned into dozens of BuzzFeed and Reddit posts, a TV appearance on "Good Morning America," a documentary, and a line of merchandise.

Cuteness: A matter of survival

Our love affair with pint-sized furry friends may be a matter of survival. Scientists have found that humans are instinctively attracted to anything that has features similar to those of a baby. Large eyes, chubby cheeks, big foreheads, and generally rounded features, are what humans are attracted to. "These features are so ingrained in us to respond to," said Oriana Aragon, a Yale psychologist.
    Many scientists believe we've developed this attraction in order to survive. "Our survival depends on us taking care of our young. It's part of our human species to respond to these features," explained Aragon.
    And so, when we see those similar type features in animals -- big eyes in big heads on little bodies -- we react the same way we do to babies. In fact, marketers and designers have even applied those types of features to cars to get our attention. Think of the Volkswagan Beetle or the Mini Cooper.

    Getting your cute fix

    But we aren't mindlessly blinded by cute animals. In fact, studies have found that the pleasure centers of our brains are actually lighting up when we see something cute because there is a rush of dopamine to the brain. It's a response similar to when we eat sugar or have sex.
    "It is kind of a vice. We want our cute fix. There are entire things devoted to cuteness," said Aragon.
    "It's something that gives us pleasure, and makes us come back. Eating those high-calorie rich foods were essential to our survival in the early days," said Aragon. So, seeing and caring for something cute acts in a similar manner in our brain; we see a cute baby, and instinctively reach out to cuddle it, our brain gets a dopamine boost to reward us, and boom -- we're happy!

    Emotions vs. expressions

    Have you ever found yourself wanting to pinch a puppy or eat a baby's cheeks because they're so cute? If you think about survival, that actually seems contrary to caring for a child. Why would anyone want to eat their baby?
    But as humans, we have a whole host of expressions on our faces that don't at all match our emotions on the inside. Think about tears of joy, or screaming out of excitement watching your favorite band, or wanting to pinch a baby's cheeks.
    These expressions that seem contrary to our emotions are called "dimorphous expressions," and scientists believe that this may be a self-regulating mechanism that allows us to keep our emotions in check. Feeling too happy? Balance it out with some tears. Are you ever so frustrated with a situation that you end up laughing because you don't know what else to do? Again, it may be a mechanism to help tamper being overwhelmed with the initial emotion.
    "That facial feedback sends info back to your brain, and it help scramble that primary emotion. Now the person that was overwhelmed is carried down and goes back to homeostatis. It helps people pull them back," said Aragon.

    Cute aggression

    Aragon has specifically studied cute aggression -- when things are so cute, you can't stand it and exhibit aggressive behavior. In fact, a number of languages have specific words to describe this sensation. Filipinos say "gigil," which describes the urge to grit your teeth or pinch cheeks. The French say "mignon a croquer," which literally translates to "So cute that you want to munch it!"
    To test it, Aragon and her team presented people with pictures of baby and adult versions of animals such as elephants, ducks and cats. Ninety participants viewed these pictures while holding bubble wrap. When they viewed the baby animals the participants popped more bubbles than when they viewed the adult animals.

    Creating focus with cuteness

    A similar study in Japan found that participants performed better on these high concentration tasks when they viewed images of cute animals versus pictures of food or other non-cute photos.
    So next time you are caught watching cute animal videos at work, you can tell your boss you aren't procrastinating. You are increasing your productivity.