We’re all familiar with the smiley emoticon, and its power to add levity, flirtation, and occasionally passive-aggression to our texts, chats, and e-mails. But according to researchers, our brains have started to take the cluster of punctuation one step further and actually respond to it like a real face.
According to a recent study published in the journal Social Neuroscience, looking at faces crafted from colons and parentheses can trigger the same facial recognition response in the occipitotemporalparts of brain that takes place when we gaze into meatspace visages of other humans.
Although the iconic grinning yellow sphere with two eyes and a mouth originated in the 1960s and other typographical depictions of emotion cropped up even earlier, the sideways smiley emoticon as we know it originated in 1982. Most people now instantly recognize :) as a smiling face. However, this response isn’t innate, but rather learned.
Nor are all smileys created equal. The neural reaction in the study changed significantly depending on whether or not people were looking at the most familiar version of the smiley emoticon. While the traditional :) and :-) symbols triggered the same face-specific mechanisms used for processing actual faces, the non-standard (-: did not. (If you’ve ever had an argument over whether the reverse smiley is valid, feel free to point to this study as evidence that even our brains reject them as abominations.)
“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 learnt that this represents a face,” researcher Owen Churches told Australia’s ABC. “This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It’s really quite amazing.”
Now if only our brains could determine if :) in a text from a new acquaintance means they’re flirting or just laughing at us.