I have an 11-pound Chihuahua, and I love to smoosh her against my face. I’m not exactly sure what I get out of this ritual, because she doesn’t smell great. Still, I take her up in my hands, bring her toward my head, and make a noise in her side that is like a small scream, but without opening my mouth. Afterward, we look at each other for a moment—she’s suspicious, and I’m slightly embarrassed—before pretending that nothing happened.
I harass my dog in this way constantly. She’s a little loaf of a thing, with big eyes and satellite-dish ears and a teeny snoot, and she is so cute that I have overwhelming urges to, among other things, bite her ears and gently boop her nose. As odd as this all might sound when spelled out—the desire to nibble your pets is usually not discussed in polite company—lots of people share these impulses toward dogs, babies, or other wee things they find excruciatingly adorable. Even if you don’t, you might have experienced secondhand embarrassment for someone who does.
This affliction has a name: “cute aggression.” And for the first time, researchers have begun to map what’s happening in our brains when we decide we want to chomp on a chubby baby leg (in a friendly way!). Their findings, published last week in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggest that experiencing cuteness sends many people on a neurochemical roller coaster, with their minds’ attempts to balance themselves resulting in bizarre, intense displays toward tiny, helpless beings. This over-the-top response might serve an important purpose: to ensure that those of us who experience cute aggression don’t spend so much time cooing at a baby or puppy that we forget to take care of it.