The language of smiley-faced emoticons alters our brain activity, according to Australian researchers.
An emoticon is a pictorial representation of either a literal facial expression or virtual prosodic device used to either draw the receiver’s attention to the temperament of the sender or punctuate an emotion during non-verbal commutation via email, instant or text message.
The use of emoticons has grown exponentially since the advent of text messaging and social media. These cartoonish representations are frequently seen scattered about on Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. And as social media has become more widespread the basic sideways emoticons have evolved, allowing these images to play a significant role in language – similarly to how text-speak has in our culture.
These creative symbols offer another range of tone and feeling, portraying specific sentiments through would-be facial gestures. With a simple combination of semi-colons, colons, open or closed parenthesis, and a mismatch of numbers and letters people can convey flirtation, distress, frustration, and joy.
However, there are some people who’ve become absolutely prolific with them, committing a faux pas of netiquette by overusing emoticons. You know these people. They emote everything to the point of even unprofessionally incorporating them into work email. Some employers still 🙁 upon their use in work related correspondence.
It has been suggested smileys have three primary meanings when used in work emails, according to a related study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: pushing a positive attitude onto your recipient, marking a joke or ironic statement, and serving as a passive aggressive hedge that strengthens or softens the impact of the message, reports Quartz. Often times they can be tragically misinterpreted the same way USING ALL CAPS can inadvertently convey a loud or aggressive tone. Thus, there use is typically discouraged in this context.
I digress. Since emoticons lack an acoustic signature found in verbal languages, the brain has to map different pathways in order to visually identify and understand them. Perhaps similar to how the brain maps out learning sign language.
Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide says in ABC Science, “Emoticons are a new form of language that we’re producing, and to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity.”
Churches has been involved in neuroscience research for several years. According to Churches, people pay particular attention to faces more than anything else in terms of reaction and body language. Very specific parts of the brain are activated when assessing the position of a person’s mouth in relation to the nose and eyes.
Thus, he wanted to find out if a similar pattern of brain activity would be produced while looking at a smiley-faced emoticon.
Using electrophysiology, a measure of voltage or electrical current changes, Churches and his colleagues studied 20 participants. The subjects were presented with images of real faces as well as smiley-faced emoticons (involving the use of a colon, hyphen, and parenthesis), as well as a string of meaningless characters.
When presented with different stimuli, the electrical activity of the brain was measured.
Real faces, both upright and inverted, triggered face-specific brain activity. Of the emoticons, only the conventional configuration of ‘:-)’ produced similar results. When it was reversed, ‘(-:’ areas of the brain most readily involved in facial perception were unable to immediately identify the image as a face.
When stripped of the conventional configuration, the parenthesis, hyphen and colon no longer represented a mouth, nose and eyes. Instead it reverted to a series of punctuation marks.