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How emoticons are changing our brains

Emoticons Are Changing Our Brains

New research shows that we're creating a whole new type of brain activity to handle all those passive-aggressive smileys people are putting at the end of their texts.

We've talked about pareidolia before, and you probably already knew about it. It's that human tendency to see faces in things like the fronts of cars or clouds, stuff like that. It's common enough that there's a subreddit devoted to it.

Carl Sagan thought it might've been an evolutionary trait. The idea is that we're hardwired to recognize friendly or angry faces at a moment's notice, it gives us a better chance at survival.

That makes sense intuitively -- no one has to tell you to see a face in your toast or a light socket, you just see it. It also matches up with what goes on in your brain when it happens.

Pareidolia happens in the ventral fusiform cortex of our brain, almost instantly. In an fMRI, the average person recognizes a human face in 130 miliseconds and something with a face-y look in 165 miliseconds. And the brain activity looks almost exactly the same in each.

So that brings us to our smiley emoticon -- specifically the dash-as-nose variety. You'd figure it fits right into the whole face burned into toast thing. But here's the thing- when the emoticon was introduced on a message board in 1982, it had to be explained. It wasn't naturally recognized as a smiling face. Our brains saw it more as language or punctuation. It was a symbol to be decoded.

A new study out of Flinders University says that's changed over time. 20 people were shown real faces, smiley emoticons, and a bunch of meaningless punctuation while their brain activity was monitored- and the emoticon was recognized by the pareidolia part of the brain. We now see it innately as a face.

But here's something interesting: turn a face sideways, it's still a face, your brain reacts to it the same way. Type an emoticon the opposite way and our brains don't register it as a face at all. Which kind of makes sense to me, because if someone types it the opposite way in a text it takes me a moment to get what they mean.

Dr. Owen Churches, the lead researcher on the study said this means emoticons are something new- a new sort of language. And our brains are building a new pattern of brain activity to decode it. This is kind of similar to research that shows things like the invention of maps and clocks changed the way we saw and organized information. We change the world and it changes us in return.

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BOB February 23 2014 at 10:43 PM

;-)))) :-(( ;-} :-/

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chckpope February 23 2014 at 8:44 PM

I would imagine everything our brains process changes it in some way.

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nursingcher9737 February 23 2014 at 8:31 PM

this is funny because emoticons are our facial expressions for a game or in a letter or email message whether or not it changes ur brain is funny because its just how we are expressing our feeling thoughts to someone but it can help with us in speaking to someone and letting them know our expressions

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YourFtr February 23 2014 at 8:13 PM

Perhaps Nuclear Power Plants use Emoticons as
( ) Start Nuclear Pile or
) ( Stop Nuclear Pile
Naturally; since these took an extra second to interpret, rather than START or STOP words;
Some technician made a hasty mistake and
Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl happened.....

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YourFtr February 23 2014 at 8:02 PM

What about the symbols for
Open Elevator Doors <> and
Close Elevator Doors ><
Are those Emoticons !?? They tend to anger me, because.....
Actually they take longer to process than just OPEN or CLOSE words ( which people are used to seeeing ) so they are somewhat self-defeating in the real world.!!?

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laureenmt February 23 2014 at 11:03 PM

Not everyone speaks (or reads) English.

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Sammy February 23 2014 at 7:39 PM

That actually makes sense and is pretty interesting. I have had people type backwards smileys to me like this: (: or (-: and it took me a few seconds to recognize what it was. Whereas when I see :) or
:-), I recognize it instantly.

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ewhhomes February 23 2014 at 6:05 PM


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aspman07 February 23 2014 at 5:43 PM

AOL, when are you going to do something about all these spammers?

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kingofswords72 February 23 2014 at 6:32 PM

The spammers pay AOL/HuffPo for the space to advertise in the comments section. That is why you always see them at the top of the comments section when you first scroll down. Spammers pay for them to always be on top. That is why you will never see them go away. As long as the advertising is sanctioned and paid for it actually does not constitute spam. Annoying? Yes.

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Karen February 23 2014 at 11:12 PM

So no more point in flagging them as abusive?

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dubricus February 23 2014 at 4:45 PM

I think this is nonsense. Whomever the smiley emoticon had to be explained to in 1982 was just plain dumb. Such things had, believe it or not, been in use in the good, old days of typewriters. I never had to have the Smiley explained to me & I see it whether it is left facing or right facing.

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david.konen February 23 2014 at 4:02 PM

Out of all the emoticons which are out there to be passed on to each of us, I think the most popular are: 1) :) (the SMILING face) 2) ;) (the WINKING face) 3) \:\ (a goofy face which SPINS around) 4) and :d (a LAUGHING face) [we also have :D] I've seen some of the OTHER emoticons, and the way they can be typed up (some would NOT be my cup of tea).

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m.young38 February 23 2014 at 5:35 PM

agreed unless it is the little yellow face it may as well be greek, italian, japanese or a combination of them all because I know nothing about what to type to get a face nor do I care to. LOL is about the extent of what I use, if even that.

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