American babies are cute


A round face, large, wide set eyes and clumsy movements - you just have to like this creature. In 1943, the Austrian behavioral researcher Konrad Lorenz coined the term “child schema”. Human babies and many animal children follow this pattern. Anyone who watches them can hardly escape their charm. Much research has since confirmed the effect of the child schema on adults, but no precise explanation has yet been given.

From an evolutionary point of view, the child pattern makes a lot of sense: The "cute" signaling characteristics increase the willingness to care and thus ensure the survival of the offspring. One thing is certain: the more pronounced the childlike traits, the more women in particular feel attracted. Up to now, almost nothing was known about the neurobiological basis of this impulse, which ensures altruistic and caring behavior. Now German and American researchers have discovered: The child schema works in the brain like a drug that activates the reward center.

The groundbreaking study was carried out by Melanie L. Glocker and Norbert Sachser from the University of Münster and a team led by Ruben C. Gur from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The neuroscientists modified photos of babies on the computer so that they had lower or higher Kinderchema values: The researchers enlarged or reduced the eyes and rounded or stretched the shape of the head. Then female test subjects viewed the photos while their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging. Result: With increasing Kindchema values, the activity in the nucleus accumbens increased. This brain region is considered the reward center. It is responsible for behavior that is expected to be rewarded, triggers feelings of happiness and plays an important role in drug addicts. “The results offer an insight into the biological basis of human caring behavior,” says Glocker. “They explain the impulse to take care of everything that resembles a baby.” Glocker is convinced that similar processes take place in the brain of men, albeit in a weakened form.

Editing: Hans Groth, [email protected]

September 15, 2009