Emoticons to a New Level

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By Athena Yenko | February 18, 2014 5:31 PM EST

Emoticons are now everywhere, from texts, chats, e-mails, vandalism to designs in shirts etc.

Surely, people are taking emoticons into a higher level.

In fact, a study titled Emoticons in mind: An event-related Potential Study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, found that people actually respond to emoticons just how they respond to a real face.

Yes, emoticons are just colons, parentheses and periods but the study found that they trigger the same facial recognition response from the occipitotemporal parts of brain - a response that also happens when people look into the faces of other human beings.

According to the study, smiley (yellow sphere with two eyes and a smiling mouth) was created as early as the 1960s. Other types of emoticon were discovered year after year after that until the sideways smiley, the most popular emoticon at present, was created in 1982.

The study said that response to emoticons varied greatly depending whether people are responding to a familiar version of the emoticons.

Take the smiley emoticon for example. The most familiar emoticons :) and :-) triggered the same facial expression from people - an expression they also make when looking at an actual face. On the other hand, the reversed smiley (-: do not trigger the same facial expression from people.

"There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with. 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," researcher Owen Churches told Australia's ABC.

"This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It's really quite amazing."

*Participants

This study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of South Australia. Twenty right-handed participants aged 18-32 years (six males) took part in the experiment. All participants were free from an uncorrected impairment in eyesight or hand movement, a personal or a family history of any psychological or genetic disorder or a period of unconsciousness in the last 5 years.

*Stimuli

Participants were shown pictures of canonically arranged and inverted faces, emoticons in the form ":-)" and nonrepresentational character combinations (henceforth known as characters) in the form "*/.". Inversion of the stimuli was conducted by rotating each image by 180 degrees. Hence, canonically arranged faces were presented with the eyes at the top and inverted faces with the eyes at the bottom. Canonically arranged emoticons were presented with the eyes on the left and inverted emoticons with the eyes on the right. Sixty stimuli in each category were shown along with 30 pictures of flowers which were always presented upright. Faces were half male, half female and all showed a happy expression. These were taken from the Karolinska Directed Emotional Faces (KDEF IDs AF 01 to 30 HAS and AM 01 to 30 HAS; Lundqvist, Flykt, & Öhman, 1998). Emoticons and characters were typed in 60 different typefaces (fonts). All stimuli were shown on a gray background and were 5 cm by 7 cm on the monitor as shown in Figure 1.

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