British Columbia·Analysis

Cuteness power: Why watching animal videos is good for your brain

When Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson is barraged with puppy videos all that tail-wagging cuteness offers more than just a quick jolt of joy — it may even do a little brain healing.

'It's not a real medicine but cute heals you,' says Seattle researcher in Tokyo

Why watching cute animal videos is good for your brain

6 years ago
Duration 1:30
Don't feel guilty about watching this cuteness. Science is our on your side! Thumbnail attached.

When University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson is barraged with puppy videos from his partner who wants a puppy, all that tail-wagging cuteness offers more than just a quick jolt of joy — it may even do a little brain healing.

An emerging Japanese school of thought, which revolves around the study of Kawaii or the quality of being cute, has found evidence that staring at cute things can boost mood and concentration by tapping into the same chemical reward system in the brain that makes cocaine addictive.

Millions of people send so-called "internet flouff" — cute animal videos or memes — to friends daily with no concept of the power of cuteness. Search #flouff on Twitter for endless puppy shots.

The adorable dog videos Krigolson's partner sends him, hinting for a puppy, are habit forming.

Krigolson said unexpected animal antics attract us at a neurological level.

"You are not expecting to see something cute and cuddly and then you see it and it's perceived by the brain as a reward," said Krigolson.

So fluffy dogs, scrappy kittens and adorable hedgehogs give the brain a short-lived chemical boost that can cross cultural divides.

Doge is an internet meme that went viral in 2013 after the adopted Shiba Inu's owner posted pictures of the canine whose cuteness caught fire. (Wikipedia/Atsuko Sato)

How it works

"There is no doubt there is a short-term burst of happiness," Krigolson said. "That should lead to better cognitive function for the short term. Staring at cute things activates the amygdala [an area of the brain deals with emotions] and other emotional areas of the brain, which ramps up other cognitive systems.

"So there is a benefit. What makes it particularly powerful is when the emotional response and reward are wrapped together," he said.

Oof. Juno, a polar bear cub at the Toronto Zoo, acts like a cartoon. No translation needed. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The cute image delivers the brain a miniscule blast of dopamine, working the same chemical reward system activated by drugs like cocaine.

It makes us come back for more before we are even conscious we want to.

While some Facebook users have moved to Instagram to avoid political and news content, few internet users escape cute creature memes.

Krigolson points to 1950s studies that inserted a wire into rats brains so they could self stimulate their dopamine releases.

"The rats would just sit there hammering on the lever. They wouldn't eat. They wouldn't sleep," he said.

Kawaii is the characteristic of being cute. This narwhal by U.K. artist Katie White is an example of the aesthetic. (Katie White/Redbubble)

Animal images also trigger emotional responses, delivering hormones like oxytocin, dubbed the "cuddle chemical," which offers the feeling of bliss enjoyed by some breast-feeding mothers.

School of kawaii

It makes sense that a research stream that studies the quality of being cute hails from Japan, the same country that created everything from Hello Kitty, an iconic feline character, to Doge, a pervasive meme of a Shiba Inu dog, whose sidelong glance exploded on social media.

In Tokyo, researchers like Kawaii guru Hiroshi Nittono host conferences and "cute studies" published in the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture that explore everything from Hello Kitty to kyaraben — bento boxes where the food is crafted into cute characters.

Lost in translation

Seattle scholar Joshua Dale, who has lived for years in Japan, became so fascinated by the concept of kawaii, that he wrote a book.

"It's a multi-billion dollar industry and once you start looking, it's everywhere," Dale said in an interview from his Tokyo home, pointing to everything from Disney and Pixar content to obsessive animal-video sharing online.

But he said there is some confusion.

Hedgehogs by their nature are cute. In Tokyo, cafes cater to people who want to cuddle hedgehogs or bunnies. It also has cafes feature cats, dogs, budgies or even goat cafes. (Guelph Humane Society)

In English, cute can also mean "clever." Because of this, Dale said English-speaking people often suspect cute things may be manipulative.

The Japanese concept of kawaii is simple, sugary cuteness that is seen as potentially healing, or Iwasasu in Japanese.

Despite disparities in meaning, the feeling people get when they look at cute things needs no translation.

Feel the cute

"If you find something cute then your body reacts in a way that so far we think is universal across cultures," said Dale.

Cute lights up the reward centres of the brain and attracts attention quickly.

So is it addictive?

Perhaps, but Dale sees it as an addiction to a placebo.

"It's not a real medicine ... but it can make you feel better because it releases those chemicals in the brain it can actually make you feel better." he said.

"They say 'healing' here. That cute heals you."

Research confirms that phenomenon.

Hiroshima University research showed that staring at "cute" pictures of baby animals improved attention and concentration in 132 university students.

The cute trend in Japan has even translated into the crafting of school bento box lunches into kyaraben Bento, where food becomes cute penguins, bunnies or Pokemon. (Tomomi Nakamura)

So if footage of a curled up hedgehog or squirming puppy stops you midstream, relax. It might help.

But there's no guarantee that the video will work twice. Once it's not a surprise, it won't trigger the brain's reward system.

"If you are expecting to see kittens all the time, it won't trigger the reward system." said Krigolson.

"At a corporate level you can imagine hiring your cuteness officer who would constantly be sifting through new things that will evoke this response," he said.

Viral music videos that blend cute with the grotesque — like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — to keep shaking up and pushing the limits of cute.

So if you're tempted to replace Donald Trump images with kittens, using the Make America Kittens Again Chrome extension, it's OK.

Click away.

Give your brain a cookie.

Baristas at a New York cat cafe whip up cat'achinos in an example of how kawaii is big business. Just ask Purina. (Amy Sussman/Invision/AP)