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Emoticons are rewiring the way our brains work

The most basic of emoticons, such as :-) and :-(, are changing the way in which our brains work. Those are the findings of a new study into how we react to text pictures, which concludes that we are learning to adapt to “a new pattern of brain activity” to decode the smiley faces, frowns and winks that are set before us every day.

The research originates from Flinders University in Australia and was first published in Social Neuroscience before being picked up by ABC Australia. Dr Owen Churches was part of the research team analyzing the brain’s reaction to text and emoticons: “This is an entirely culturally created neural response. It’s really quite amazing,” he told ABC.

Participants in the study were presented with images of real faces, smiley face emoticons and meaningless sets of characters. The research team found that the brain reacted in the same way to the emoticons as to pictures of faces, but only when the “:-)” characters were in the correct order. Switching them around to “(-:” didn’t elicit the same response. The signal that’s activated when our brains see a face is known as the N170 event-related potential.

The smiley face first appeared on a message board at the Carnegie Mellon University in 1982, and it seems that we’re now able to process it instantly. “There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with,” says Dr Churches. “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.”