Ethan Zuckerman, who is wise, kind, and brilliant, posits that people have a preference for using the Internet for banal activities, like surfing for “cute cats.” It seems true that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like, are, indeed, rife with cute cats. I’m beginning to believe there is a deep explanation for that. I’m proposing a theory hereby referred to as Cute Cats Redux.
Here’s a little background:
In 2009, I was talking about email apnea and showing the Heartmath EmWave technology at a Foo Camp. Before passing the EmWave around, I demonstrated it. The EmWave shows, using red, blue, and green colored lights, the level of stress one is experiencing.
I explained that, to reduce stress, one could use certain types of breathing to get into a more balanced autonomic state. Only, even as I was using the suggested breathing technique, I was _not_ shifting states. The light was red. Red. RED.
I looked at the audience and said: “There’s actually another way to do this. When we evoke feelings of love and appreciation, it can also bring us into a more balanced autonomic state.” I looked around the room and saw so many people I admired and appreciated: Matt Mullenweg, John Hagel, Kathy Sierra, Bunnie Huang, Dan Gould, Sara Winge, and so many others.
Then, my eyes settled on Matt Mullenweg. Matt had very kindly come up to me at a conference a few months earlier, and mentioned that he enjoyed my writing, and when I was ready to move off my very broken JotSpot Wiki, to WordPress, that he’d be happy to help me. I was so moved by this – both emotionally (and literally! I made the switch and Matt was awesome!).
I started, “Matt, thank you so much for your kindness – for…” Before I could even finish the sentence, the audience gasped. GREEN!!! Eye contact, appreciation, and a few words, had shifted my autonomic state instantly! The audience SAW the power of emotion. Of course, with the emotion, my breathing and attention state also shifted. I was more relaxed. It’s all wired together: attention, emotion, breathing.
A few months after that, I was showing a senior executive how to use the EmWave to become more aware of her stress levels and to learn to better manage this. When breathing techniques didn’t work to help her shift out of a stressed state, I suggested she think about something she loved. Her husband was standing nearby. For a moment (she explained later), she focused on her husband, then sighed, and said, “Honey, I’m going to focus on the cats.” Green! Instant green!
Fast forward to March 2014. I’m being interviewed by Erin Anderssen, a journalist. She mentions that it can be challenging to shift from red to green when she’s using the EmWave. I tell her the story from 2009. Then it hits me!
What if all the cute cats and dogs on the Internet are in some small way, evoking momentary feelings of love and appreciation? What if looking at these images is as beneficial as a “breathing break.” What if cute cats and dogs make us kinder and more empathic as we hunch over our personal technologies for hours on end? What if we are self-soothing and bringing ourselves back into a kind of spiritual homeostasis when we look at and share these images and videos.
It turns out, there’s science to support the Cute Cats Redux theory. There’s a database of images called the International Affective Picture System, compiled by researchers Margaret Bradley and Peter Lang. This calibrated set of photos tracks affective consequences, and positive and negative responses to photos. Negative examples include: a spider, a baby with a tumor, and an automobile crash with injured people. On the positive side, there’s a category referred to as “cute.” Cute includes the old couple on the park bench holding hands and watching the sunset, as well as kittens and puppies. All these produce positive affect.
Looking at those cute cats and puppies is not a waste of time. It’s self-soothing. Just as we have a physical homeostasis that supports healthy regulation of bodily functions, I believe we have a spiritual homeostasis that can draw us, both individually and collectively toward what heals us. Cute Cats Redux.
This post is dedicated to Ben Huh, Cheezburger, and to a very funny guy who sent me a video of him singing a sweet song to his cat.