The smiley face: Why it is important today

It only seems natural to add a smiley face onto your text messages and emails to express your current mood.

It only seems natural to add a smiley face onto your text messages and emails to express your current mood. Some of us are more inclined to add these illustrations of emotions to our communications than others, but we all recognise the difference between which is a picture of sadness or one of happiness. They are used colloquially to show just how happy you are, reassure that what was said was a joke, or soften the blow after bad news and so on.

However, new research suggests that it is not just learned recognition and understanding of these smiley faces that is occurring anymore. Scientists from the school of psychology at Australia’s Flinders University in Adelaide have found that the human brain has adapted to react to emoticons in the same way we would to real facial expressions.

Since the first use of ‘smileys’ in a post by Professor Scott E Fahlman to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board in 1982, the pattern of brain activity triggered by looking at an emoticon smiley face started to change to become the same as when someone sees a real smiling human face.

‘Really quite amazing’

Before 1982, there is nothing to suggest that anyone would have seen anything but a few characters and random punctuation marks. It may seem hard to believe, but can you remember the first time you saw a ‘:-)’? We now recognise this as a face, but perhaps it would not have been so clear before it became so prominent in our lives.

Dr Owen Churches told the broadcaster ABC: “This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It’s really quite amazing.”

Research was carried out by showing 20 participants images of real faces, smiley face emoticons and random characters and symbols. Typical smileys such as ‘:-)’ were recognised in the same was as a smiling human face, but when reversed ‘(-:’ or shown upright, no response was triggered.

It seems those who like to share their maverick ways of smiley faces the wrong way round are not conveying the emotions correctly at all! Even my computer has given it a green squiggly line, as if it doesn’t quite understand.

How many times have you replied to messages from friends with a Whatsapp picture or smiley face to put across your frame of mind? I’ve realised that it’s not uncommon for friends of mine to participate in ‘emoticon charades’ where players must only use emoticons to talk to each other and guess the film, book or television show.

Dr Churches commented that our use of emoticons is a “new form of language that we’re producing” which our brain has learned to decode with a new pattern of activity.

It really is remarkable that in the past 30 years or less we have managed to rewrite the way our brains are wired just with the usage of simple smiley faces. They’re obviously much more important and influential than we thought.

Next time you’re not in a great mood, type a smiley to a friend and wait for the response. It just might cheer your brain up!

What role does the smiley face have today? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: Flyingtigersite / Wikimedia Commons