How emoticons are changing our brains

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.