Why the image of a baby is so enchanting?

Dr. Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD

Em português
The vision of a baby, either animal or human, invariably causes feelings and reactions of tenderness and enchantment in people of practically all ages.  The most usual reaction is a powerful impulse to take them into our arms, kiss or caress them, as they were our own children.

What causes it? Why these stimuli are so powerful? We know today that they are partially due to innate mechanisms in our nervous system, or, in other words, they are not learned but rather genetically programmed. Although the human mind and behavior are extremely influenced by education, culture and environment, it is also well known that a significant part of them is based on innate processes and systems, such as these sensorial triggering mechanisms.

The famous Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz (who got the Nobel award for his studies in the biological basis of behavior), was the first one to suggest, in 1943, that the reactions and feelings to images of babies are not entirely due to our cultural learning, but rather it could be the result of a biological adaptation brought about by evolution, which has molded our nervous system to automatically recognize the typical anatomical features of infants and to react protectively toward it, therefore giving a survival advantage to this behavior. He named this set of features as "Kindchenschema" (in German, "small children pattern").
The main triggering features are: 
  • A larger size of the head in relation to the rest of the body; 
  • A rounded skull and salient front;  
  • Big eyes, placed below the middle line of the skull;  
  • Round and oversized cheeks, small nose; 
  • Short, chubby and rounded members. 


Original illustration of Lorenz's comparison between adult and infantile visual head patterns
  Another German ethologist, B. Hückstedt, published a study in 1965, whereby he determined experimentally which of these features were essential for triggering the "enchantment" reaction in voluntary adults. He concluded that the rounded front and a large skull in relation to the rest of the body are the most important ones. 

Even the images of baby animals are effective as triggering stimuli, as it has been proved by the researcher P. Spindler (1961). He studied the typical "maternal" reaction in adults, by offering them kittens and cats of different ages. The reaction, consisting of positive affect, merriment, tilting the head to one side, and the utterance of tender and childish words, was more frequent with kittens of smaller age than with adult cats.

Exaggeration of infantile features in animation movie characters. Roundness of forms, small and pointed noses, big eyes and a big head in relation to the rest of the body are the essential traces.

The toy and movie animation industries, such as Disney's films, are keen in using and abusing the knowledge about the Kindschenschema, and build their models and drawings in the exact measure to evoke feelings of enchantment in adults and children alike.

Note, for example, how anyone is able to recognize immediately as infants these sculptures of Thumper, Bambi and Dalmatian. 


As a homage to the enchantment and tenderness of babies, we offer to our readers a Animal Babies Photo Gallery as the new exhibit of the Neuroscience Art Gallery of July 2002.


K. Lorenz (1943). Die angeborenen Formen möglicher Erfahrung. Z. Tierpsycholog., 5, 235-249

B. Hückstedt (1965). Experimentelle Untersuchungen zum Kindchenschema. Z. exp. U. angew Psychol., 12, 421-450

P. Spindler (1961). Studien zur Vererbung von Verhaltensweisen. 3. Verhalten gegenüber jungen Katsen. Anthrop. Anz., 25, 1, 60-80

The Author
Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD. Psychobiologist, master and doctor in Sciences by the University São Paulo, and post-doctoral studies in the Department of Psychology of the University of California at Los Angeles. Associate researcher of the Center for Biomedical Informatics, State University of Campinas, Brazil, Vice-president, the Edumed Institute. Editor-in-chief, Brain & Mind magazine and associate editor, Intermedic and Informática Médica journals.

Copyright 2002 Silvia Helena Cardoso
Published on July 9, 2002
Brain & Mind Magazine
An Initiative: 
Center for Biomedical Informatics, State University of Campinas