Friday, 29 February 2008

Baby scheme stands brain scan test

cute pup
According to Konrad Lorenz, the human reaction to "cuteness" is innate, triggered by a set of body proportions that he dubbed baby scheme (Kindchenschema): Big eyes, big head with small nose, chin and ears, rounded shape, short extremities. The reaction "so cute" is released immediately, by an instinctive reaction, as Lorenz stated.

His theory has resisted an attempt of falsification just recently: At Oxford University, the brains of adults have been scanned by magnetoencephalography (MEG) while they looked at pictures of unfamiliar babies and adults. Within a seventh of a second, baby face viewing produced a clear signal in a region of the front part of the brain that has been linked to reward behaviour. Viewing adult faces did not produce such a reaction. For rejecting the Lorenz baby scheme hypothesis, the delay time should have been much longer, and the reaction should have taken place in other regions of the brain. Thus, the Lorenz hypothesis still can be upheld.

In some way, it is also my hypothesis. My choice of studying ethology in the past seventies has been strongly influenced by Konrad Lorenz books. He also led me to the philosophy of Karl Popper and the idea that falsification rather than verification is the basis of science. About thirty years ago, Konrad Lorenz visited our institute of Ethology and Wild Animal Biology at Zurich University, and I shook hands with this great pioneer.

There are dark sides of this personality, as you may know and as I am fully aware. But today cuteness rules, and there is no need for ad hominem remarks here. The cuteness hypothesis, for sure, has changed my life. So I am quite happy that it has survived the test.

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