When you see a colon and a parentheses, you know exactly what it means. The smiley face has become ubiquitous online, and psychologists have even looked into the ways it’s used in emails. Now, researchers say that not only do we know what the little :) means, but we actually perceive it the same way we perceive an actual human face.
Researchers at Australia's Flinders University showed twenty participants smiley faces, along with real faces and strings of symbols that shouldn’t look like faces, all while recording the signals in the region of the brain that’s primarily activated when we see faces. This signal, called the N170 event-related potential, is the highest when people see actual faces, but was also high when people saw the standard emoticon :). “This indicates that when upright, emoticons are processed in occipitotemporal sites similarly to faces due to their familiar configuration,” the researchers write.
Interestingly, when you switched up the characters that make up the smiley, the signal went away. So (-: didn’t trigger our facial recognition patterns, but :-) did. "If that sequence is reversed with opening parenthesis, hyphen, colon (-: , areas of the brain most readily involved in face perception aren't able to process the image as a face," lead researcher Owen Churches told ABC.
Owen thinks this is interesting because it shows that we can integrate a learned response and an innate one. We are naturally programmed to recognize human faces, but only through specific learning could we figure out that a colon and parentheses was supposed to be a face. "This is an entirely culturally-created neural response. It's really quite amazing,” Churches told ABC. “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.”
Perhaps eventually we’ll respond to emoji as we would to real dogs, cats and night skies.