This is Why We Loved Grumpy Cat

Tardar Sauce, nicknamed Grumpy Cat, was an American Internet celebrity cat. She was known for her permanently “grumpy” facial appearance, which was caused by an underbite and feline dwarfism. As of March 2020, Grumpy Cat had 8.2 million likes on Facebook2.7 million followers on Instagram, 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and 283 thousand subscribers on YouTube. Impressive stats, indeed! Her popularity was sealed by her participation at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. People stood in line for hours to get their pictures taken with her, while she mostly ignored her fans.

So, what is it about cute or funny animal photos and videos that make them so appealing to humans?

It might seem frivolous to share photos of cute pets or photobombing animals, but there is scientific evidence from psychological research that viewing certain pictures can combat stress and make us happier. Why do images have such an influence on emotion?

We are visual creatures and our brain is biased towards visual information. This is what has enabled us to survive. The brain registers in less than a second whether we’re safe (evoking positive emotional responses) or in danger (evoking negative emotional responses) by the images we see. Images that evoke positive emotional responses cause physical changes in the brain that increase resilience to stress and reinforce positive attributes like care and compassion.

We have a wealth of scientific evidence that tells us that a whole range of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we view certain images. Research shows that warm fuzzy images of animals and babies can make us happier, increase our resilience to stress, and prime our brains for positive behaviors toward others like care, compassion, and helpfulness.

We know that there are many activities that will boost our mood like gratitude journaling, visualizing good things happening to us, loving-kindness meditations, and exercise. Positive videos have been found to be one of the strongest good-mood-inducers. In fact, a 2015 review of studies found that videos had a stronger effect on mood than music or several other mood-induction techniques.

A study conducted by Japanese researcher Hiroshi Nittono found that participants who viewed pictures of puppies, Grumpy Cat videos, or watched panda cams experienced a boost in both mood and productivity. In the study, subjects performed several tasks that required skill and concentration (including playing the board game, “Operation”) before and after viewing pictures of baby animals, adult animals, and neutral items like food.

The group that viewed the cute animal pictures performed significantly better than the other two groups. Researchers attributed the increased productivity to a few factors including a lift in mood and the fact that viewing the videos appeared to help participants narrow their focus.

Another study conducted by James McNulty of Florida State University found that viewing pictures of cute animals could help people feel more positively about their lives and relationships.  The researchers asked 144 couples who had been married for less than 5 years to complete marital satisfaction surveys. Then, they divided the couples into groups and had each group view a stream of images three times a week for six weeks. The couples in the experimental group saw a stream of images that included their partner paired with visuals of cute animals or words like, “wonderful”. The other group saw pictures of their partners paired with neutral objects like buttons and furniture.

After six weeks, the group who had been viewing cute animal pictures paired with their spouses had more positive automatic responses to their spouses. Additionally, they demonstrated more satisfaction with their marriages, and improvements of a higher degree than those in the control groups.

Most impressive, perhaps, are the physical changes that occur in our brains. When we see images like playful puppies and cute kittens, the brain’s pleasure center is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, is released. Overall, our stress levels reduce, our aggression lessens, and we tend to transform into happy, cooing, caring, baby-nurturers.

It’s an aspect of what scientists refer to as embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is a growing research program in cognitive science that emphasizes the role of the environment in the development of cognitive processes. The central claim of embodied cognition is not only that our sensorimotor capacities, body, and environment not only play an important role in cognition, but also that cognition depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with particular perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked and that together form the matrix within which memory, emotion, language, and all other aspects of life are meshed.

So, today…  instead of sharing a negative political post today, why not share this Neuro Nugget and a little brain love?  Life is always better when you share the good stuff!

BTW… Grumpy Cat died on May 14, 2019. According to the family, “despite care from top professionals, as well as from her very loving family, Grumpy encountered complications from a recent urinary tract infection that unfortunately became too tough for her to overcome. She passed away peacefully on the morning of Tuesday, May 14, at home in the arms of her mommy, Tabatha.”

R.I.P Grumpy Cat

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Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.https://www.melissahughes.rocks/
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.