In 1982, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University used an emoticon smiley for the first time. It was used as a joke during a computer science general board. Since then, :) and :-) have been used to signify human smiles over email, text, or instant messaging.
Now, research suggests that the human brain has become altered to recognize smiley emoticons as the same as a real, grinning human face. That is, the brain activity of someone who views an emoticon smiley is the same as that of a person who is looking at a real-life facial expression.
“There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with,” Dr. Owen Churches told ABC Science. “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.”
Churches, the lead author of the study, was inspired to research emoticons because he was receiving a lot of emails from students who employed the use of smiley faces when asking for extensions on projects.
The study, completed at the school of psychology at Australia’s Finder University in Adelaide, analyzed the responses of 20 participants who were shown images of actual faces, smiley face emoticons, as well as a string of random characters. When they were shown a reverse smiley face, (-: for example, no response was triggered. However, after seeing the typical emoticon smiley, :-) the participants read it as an actual face. “Emoticons are a new form of language that we’re producing,” Churches said. “And to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity.”
The scientists used electrophysiology in order to identify the electrical activity pattern in the brain while they gazed at various stimuli. They also tested the response in the brain when inverting the images. “If that sequence is reversed with opening parenthesis, hyphen, colon (-:, areas of the brain most readily involved in face perception aren’t able to process the image as a face,” Churches told ABC Science.
Thus, the researchers believe emoticons are “shaping the brain,” as the extremely specific area of the brain that lights up when we see a human smile, is the same part that glows when we lay eyes on an emoticon. “This is an entirely culturally-created neural response,” Churches told ABC Science. “It’s really quite amazing.”
Scott Fahlman, the computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who started the emoticon smiley face, said, “It has been fascinating to watch this phenomenon grow from a little message I tossed off in ten minutes to something that has spread all around the world.”
“Wherever the Internet has become a part of people’s daily lives, the smiley has soon followed,” Fahlman continued. “I sometimes wonder how many millions of people have typed these characters, and how many have turned their heads to one side to view a smiley, in the 25 years since this all started.”