Human brain now reacts to emoticons naturally, says study

14 Feb 2014

The humble smiley face or ’emoticon’ is now much more than a simple pattern of colons and symbols. According to a recent study, the human brain now reacts emotionally to seeing them on our screens.

With the advent of text messages as one of the most popular forms of communication, human beings as a physically emotive people meant some messages were lost in translation without the addition of a 🙂 or 😛 to indicate their mood.

Now, according to a team of neuroscientists, we have used emoticons so often in the past 40 years that the human brain now recognises them as human faces.

The report was published in Social Neuroscience and titled Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study involving 20 participants in the study.

As part of the experiment, the 20 people were shown images of upright and inverted faces, emoticons and meaningless strings of characters. The participants’ facial responses, known in neuroscience as the N170, showed that inverted faces “produces a larger and later N170 while inverting objects which are perceived featurally rather than configurally reduces the amplitude of the N170.”

The first documented use of the emoticon was by Scott E Fahlman from Carnegie Mellon University, who suggested that the smiley face be used as an indication of when something is a joke or not.

Emoticon face image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic