Today the smiley face emoticon is practically part of our everyday language. Between texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the emoticon is used by almost everyone, everywhere. So it’s no wonder our brains have adapted to recognize the smiling emoticon as if it were a real face.
When numerous students began sending Australian researcher Owen Churches emails that contained “:-)” – the famous smiley face emoticon – he wondered how the human brain reacted to it. To delve into the subject, Churches exposed 20 study participants to a variety of faces and figures, including real human faces, typographical faces and random strings of punctuation marks. While participants viewed the images and symbols, Churches measured their electrical brain activity.
The results of Churches’ study showed that the same part of the brain that activates upon seeing human faces (the face-sensitive parts of the cortex) activated for certain emoticons as well. The brain showed facial recognition activity for the standard emoticon with the colon on the left “:-)” but not for the inverse “(-:” where the colon is on the right. Participants recognized human faces for what they are, whether they were upside-down or right-side up. This indicates that the brain views the standard smiley emoticon as a human face, but the inverse emoticon as mere punctuation marks.
How do we explain this phenomenon? Before 1982, there was no reason humans would recognize the series of punctuation marks as a smiley face, since it did not exist. The emoticon only arose after Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Scott Fahlman first used the smiley face in 1982. Since then, humans have learned to understand the emoticon as a real face, even if highly stylized. So the brain’s response to smiley faces is not an innate one but rather a learned, culturally-created response and a fascinating one at that.