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Can’t stop streaming cute puppy videos? You’re not alone.

University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson knows the feeling. His partner wants a puppy, and has been sending him a near-constant barrage of puppy videos. But Krigolson soon realized that there might be more to all that tail-wagging and big-eyed cuteness than mere enjoyment. Watching cute animal videos may provide some kind of mental healing.

In Japan, an emerging school of thought points to a similar phenomenon. Studies in kawaii, which explores “cuteness” in the context of Japanese culture, have found evidence that proves looking at cute things can improve mood and boost concentration. The thinking is that these images trigger the brain’s reward center—the same neural circuit that’s activated in cases of drug addiction.

Are Cute Pics And Videos Actually Addictive?

Does that mean that cute internet videos and memes can be dangerous? Not exactly. Thousands of people consume and share cute animal videos—like the one below—each and every day.

A simple search on Facebook, Twitter, or Google will unveil hundreds of thousands of adorable shots and videos. Though these videos might not have the robust neurological effects that illicit substances have, that doesn’t mean some people won’t end up making a habit of looking at cute stuff online.

In Krigolson’s experience, the dog videos he watches on a near-daily basis are indeed “habit-forming.” He believes there’s something to the idea that we’re attracted to animal shenanigans on a neurological level. He explains that when the brain sees an image or video of something cute and cuddly, the brain perceives it as a reward, leading to a small, neurochemical boost that usually leads to short-lived pleasure.

But That’s Not All That Happens…

That short-term burst of pleasure is actually good for your brain. In theory, it should lead to better brain functioning over the short-term. The cute-thing response happens in the amygdala, an almond-shaped node that has been shown to play a key role in our emotional response. When an emotional response is triggered, it affects other neurological systems.

So staring at something cute might actually help to boost other cognitive processes, such as memory and learning. Krigolson says there is a benefit. According to him, the effect is more powerful when “the emotional response and reward are wrapped together.”

That’s how some of us end up coming back for more before we’re aware that we even want to.

School of Kawaii

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Japan is well-known for its affinity for cuteness. It’s the land of Hello Kitty, kyaraben, and fashion and lifestyle trends such as Lolita, Sweet Lolita, and Decora. The concept of kawaii has had a profound influence on Japanese pop culture, entertainment, fashion, food, toys, behavior, and even mannerisms.

According to Seattle-born scholar Joshua Dale, who now lives in Tokyo, the kawaii industry is a multi-billion dollar one. But the concept doesn’t quite translate. The confusion comes from the fact that cute can have other meanings in English. In particular, people from English-speaking cultures are sometimes skeptical of cute things. There’s an expectation that they might be manipulative.

In Japan, kawaii is innocent and cloyingly sweet. It’s seen as having the potential power to heal. With that said, when people look at cute things, they usually don’t need a translation.  

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