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Emoticons Are Reshaping Our Brains, We Now Process :-) As A Human Face

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When we first broached the Great Smiley Debate a few weeks ago, the question was whether or not a dash-as-nose was appropriate, necessary, or a bastardization of the simple purity of two dots paired with a gentle curve. But a new, equally contentious controversy emerged in the Kinja discussion: Should the parenthesis open towards the left or the right?


Whichever configuration you supported, it ultimately seemed like a question of personal preference. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to communicating through cheeky punctuation marks. Right? Wrong!

A study in Social Neuroscience posits that, since they were introduced two decades ago, emoticons have begun to actually reshape our brains—but only some emoticons.


By way of background: When a human views another human's face—even if it's upside-down—a particular part of the brain is activated.

For the study, researcher Dr Owen Churches showed 20 participants a mix of images and used electrophysiology to monitor and record the resulting electrical patterns in their brains. People faces and emoticons that looked like this :-) sparked the same response, while this (-: and meaningless combos of characters weren't recognized or processed in the same way.

Churches finds this ability to evolve pretty significant. "There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with," he 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."

So there you go. I can't stand the dash-as-nose, but it looks like I've been overruled. All hail :-)


But hey, who the hell knows what kinds of wacky stuff we'll be accustomed to in another twenty years time. [Smithsonian, ABC Science]