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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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frozenbull February 23 2014 at 6:45 AM


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punnster February 23 2014 at 3:36 PM

Emoticons are so silly. ( * _ * )

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1 reply
david.konen punnster February 23 2014 at 4:06 PM

I had just learned of ANOTHER silly, and nearly SUGGESTIVE emoticon - (O) (O) [or (o) (o)], which would suggest the nipples from any woman's body. Now, the moment I had seen this last night, I nearly LAUGHED for a good period of time.

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evelyon7 February 23 2014 at 1:02 PM


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lzygent February 23 2014 at 1:08 PM

My sign off .!.

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crazy ray February 23 2014 at 1:13 PM

Can you stop these articles about passing off junk science and incompetent research as real and genuine? Twenty people in a study? "This is kind of similar..." "Which kid of makes sense to me..." God, how much crap can you cram in one article?

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luar February 23 2014 at 4:00 PM


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slipperyelmo February 23 2014 at 2:08 PM


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Annika February 23 2014 at 2:21 PM

The only reason we don't instantly recognize the smiley as such if it's typed backwards is because we read language from left to right. Use it in a language which is written right to left (Arabic, Hebrew), and that may change.

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rippedsuperman February 23 2014 at 3:20 PM

I like the smile. A nice thing.

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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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1 reply
kingofswords72 aspman07 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 kingofswords72 February 23 2014 at 11:12 PM

So no more point in flagging them as abusive?

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