Smile of the Century


That’s a colon, a dash, and then a closing parenthesis. Grammatically, it’s nonsense. But you probably recognize the collection of characters an emoticon — a graphical representation of a smiling face. Emoticons, especially that one, have become increasingly popular and common in digital communications.

And they’re changing how our brains function. (But maybe in good ways.)

Over the last few years, professor Owen Churches of Flinders University in Australia realized that he was receiving a lot of emails from students who were asking for extensions to turn in assignments and, increasingly, these requests were punctuated by the smiley face emoticon. That led Churches to study how our brains process emoticons, and specifically, the smiley face one above. As the Telegraph reported, Churches and team were most interested in finding out whether our brains process the emoticon as something more than just a graphical representation of a smile. The Telegraph explained, “when we see a face there is a very specific reaction in certain parts of the brain such as the occipitotemporal cortex. [. . .] This can be tracked using advanced brain scanning techniques.” That is, a specific section of our brains react in a specific, noticeable way when we see another person’s face.

Thankfully, Churches and company had access to the “advanced scanning techniques” needed to detect reactions in these areas of the brain. The group showed images of faces to people and measured the activity in the occipitotemporal cortex. Churches’s team then showed the same people a group another set of images — gibberish, :-), and (-: as well as a few others. According to a study published in early 2014 (available here), the group found that the eyes-first emoticon — that’s :-), for avoidance of doubt — resulted in similar (but less pronounced) brain activity as an actual face. Somehow, we learned on a subconscious level to treat the emoticon as if the person who typed it was actually smiling at us.

Churches was quick to point out that this isn’t some sort of innate response. He told Wired that “before 1982 there would be no reason that ‘:-)’ would activate face sensitive areas of the cortex but now it does because we’ve learnt that this represents a face,” and that this reaction “is an entirely culturally-created neural response.” That speaks to the power of our increasingly digital culture: collectively, we’ve taught our brains to value digital interactions in a manner similar to face-to-face ones. (At least in this case.)

But not all digital smiles are created equal, Churches further discovered. While :-) evokes brain activity which is akin to that of a real face, it’s mirror, (-:, does not. So if you’re a fan of open parenthesis, dash, colon, you’re not only in the minority, but you’re also not communicating as effectively as the rest of us. Sorry! :-)


Bonus Fact: The first ingredient in Goldfish (the cheddar, fish-shaped crackers) is “smiles.”

From the ArchivesThe Oldest Emoticon: Involves Abraham Lincoln. And a typo, maybe?

Related: “Instant Messaging Abbreviations, Texting and Emoticons: Quick Reference Guide.” Your mileage may vary. :-(