Bad news for all you emoticon haters out there: It's here to stay. New research now suggests that the emoticon is such an integral part of our world that our brains have altered to accept them and therefore recognize them as actual human faces. Teenagers everywhere are rejoicing. Or, rejoicing as much as teens ever do that sort of thing. Which means they're basically just slightly shrugging their shoulders.
It all started when Dr. Owen Churches, from London's school of psychology at Flinders University, wanted to see just how powerful the emoticon had become. It shouldn't surprise you that Churches students were the inspiration. "I got a large number of emails from students that went something along the lines of 'Hey, Owen, can I have an extension on that assignment?' And then they would sign off this request with a smiley face emoticon," Churches explained to ABC Science.
Though the first emoticon didn't appear until 1982, Churches noticed that they are now — unfortunately — everywhere. "Emoticons are a new form of language that we're producing," Churches argued in his paper published in the journal Social Neuroscience.
To find out just how pervasive emoticons were, Churches asked 20 people to look at images of human faces, smiley emoticons and other meaningless characters and signs. When Churches showed the participants a reversed smiley emoticon, there was no response in the participants' brains. "Areas of the brain most readily involved in face perception aren't able to process the image as a face," Churches told The Independent. However, when he flipped the emoticon to the correct way, the participants' brains instantly reacted. This, Churches explained, showed that "To decode that language [emoticons] we've produced a new pattern of brain activity." That's right. Emoticons have changed humans' brains.
The key to the impact is the human face's importance in our daily lives. According to Churches, people pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else. So much so that our reactions to them are different from any other object, symbol, or sign.
Churches research shows how easily and quickly society can alter the brain. When we're born, we simply do not have the brainpower to recognize emoticons. But as we are integrated into the world, and begin communicating, our brains start picking up new information, and thus changing. "There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with," 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. This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It's really quite amazing." Or, to put it another way, it really is quite : o.
[Image via Flickr -Miguel Pires da Rosa]