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For Valentine's Day, The Secret Science Behind 'Cuteness'

Revelry Boutique Gallery

It’s 11 a.m. on Valentine's Day, and Revelry Boutique owner Mo McKnight Howe leads me to a gallery in the back of the store.

The word Cuteopia -- written in loopy black font -- marks the turn into a room filled with hot pink, pastels and glitter.  

This is the fifth year Howe has put on Cuteopia. As the name suggests, it deals in all things artistic and adorable. She points to a collection of bright resin figurines and watercolors of animal-like creatures with giant eyes.

“Well, I guess we can start right here,” she says. “This is Harrison Fogle, and he is our one male artist in the show. We actually allow one male artist because his stuff is so freaking cute.”

And looking at his work, I can’t argue with Howe.

But I had to wonder why these pieces -- which look like Pound Puppies mixed with Margaret Keane prints -- light up the cuteness sensors in my brain. Turns out science has something to say about that.

Dr. Simon Rego is the chief psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“I think the most commonly proposed theory is one from sort of an evolutionary approach,” Rego says. “Which is to capitalize on the features that we find in human babies that trigger a sort of instinctive reaction to nurture and protect them.”

Essentially, he says, the things that we register as "cute" remind us of the features common in human infants.

“Like sort of big eyes, the protruding cheeks and forehead, and just sort of the relatively speaking big features to small area,” Rego says.

Looking around Cuteopia -- and even at Valentine's cards at the drugstore this time of year-- you see a lot of those exaggerated features. Howe points at one of Fogle’s watercolors.

"You know, it’s these little watering cute puppy eyes that are looking up at you," she says. "And you just can’t just help but think: ‘Oh my gosh, this is cute!’”

And according to Rego, our response to these features is something that transcends both culture and species.

“Regardless of your race, ethnicity or culture -- we have an automatic instinctive response to protect our young,” he says. “So this is sort of nature’s way of provoking that response in different people.”

So next time you see something that makes you go awww, take a moment to think about the evolutionary basis of your soft spot for puppy-dog eyes. 

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