Smileys Read By Brain Like Real Emotions
Christopher Philip

Big SmileyDr. Own Churches and colleagues at Flinders and the University of South Australia have found that written smiley faces found in our text messages and e-mails are decoded by the brain as real emotions. New research published in Social Neuroscience, says that the human brain has adapted to react to emoticons in the same way we would expressions of the real human face. “This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It’s really quite amazing,” said Church.

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This is a fascinating revelation, especially when we’re reminded of the fact that emoticons haven’t been in existence over our evolutionary past. The brain has adapted to its environment in a spectacular way. The string of ‘:)’ to show a happy or smiling demeanor was first used in a post to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board by Professor Scott E. Fahlman in 1982. “There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with. Before 1982 there would be no reason that ‘:-)’ would activate face sensitive areas of the cortex but now it does because we’ve learned that this represents a face,” Dr Owen Churches told ABC News.

Since then, the Internet has adopted the use more commonly to show others the intended mood motivating the message. Taken on their own, the symbols are meaningless and this is why the research is so interesting. “Emoticons are a new form of language that we’re producing,” Dr Churches said,” And to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity.”

The studied was conducted by recording the electrical activity in the brain while subjects watched images of emoticons, actual smiling faces, and a string of random characters. In previous studies, it has been shown that the brain processes faces differently when they are inverted than when they are shown upright. Usually we see faces arranged with a set of eyes above a nose followed by a mouth. But when things are turned upside down, our neural wiring gets messed up. Similarly when the emoticon was reversed, shown as (-: or presented upright, no response was triggered. “Areas of the brain most readily involved in face perception aren’t able to process the image as a face,” said Churches.

The take-away message, of course, is to continue to use emoticons in our messages. Not only do they alleviate confusion in the origination of our intent, but we also show others how we really feel. When we jokingly express ourselves, or intent for a message to be light-hearted, it’s not silly to show it by smiling – even if it’s done with a string of characters :)

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Myra Thiessen, Mark Kohler & Hannah Keage. Emoticons In Mind: An Event-Related Potential Study. 2014; 9 (2): 196-202.

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