Emoticons such as :-) have become so important to how we communicate online that they are changing the way that our brains work.
They are used to provide clues to the tone of SMS, emails and tweets that can be hard to succinctly describe in words alone. But Dr Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, has found that they have become so important that we now react to them in the same way as we would to a real human face.
When we see a face there is a very specific reaction in certain parts of the brain such as the occipitotemporal cortex. When that image of a face is inverted there is another very specific reaction. This can be tracked using advanced brain scanning techniques.
Churches found that the same reaction occurred when 20 participants in a study were shown emoticons, but only when they were viewed in the traditional, left-to-right format. When they were “inverted”, or flipped to be read right-to-left, the expected reaction was not found.
This showed that humans have now developed to read :-) in the same way as a human face, but do not have the same connection with (-:. The study, published in the Social Neuroscience journal, also included participants being shown real faces and meaningless strings of characters as controls.
This is very interesting, it is amazing how our brain can connect what emotions someone is feeling just from reading symbols and ‘slang’ language. Pretty awesome.