For more than 30 years now, people have been putting smiles in their emails using emoticons such as :) (and their history is even older than that) but do emoticons count as true smiles? Researchers now say there is some evidence that the brain recognises and interprets emoticons using the same processes it uses for real smiles.

The Brain Wave Response to a Smile

When we see a face, our brain responds in a certain way that is different from the way we respond to other stimuli. This specific brain response, called N170 by researchers who discovered it in the mid 1990s, is a pulse of brain wave energy in specific regions of the brain, lasting less than 200 milliseconds.

The response can be delayed if we are shown a face that is upside-down or sideways, because it takes the brain longer to realise it’s looking at a face and trigger the face-specific response. It was this effect that researchers were partly trying to study by looking at emoticons.

Sideways, but Still a Face

Researchers wanted to see whether people’s brains responded to emoticons the same way they responded to actual faces, and to see whether inverting emoticons, such as (-: led to a delayed response the way it did with pictures of faces.

To test this, they showed 20 people pictures of faces, inverted faces, meaningless strings of characters, emoticons, and inverted emoticons. They found that emoticons triggered the N170 response, but differently. When in their normal configuration, with the eyes at the left, they created a higher amplitude N170 than when they were in their inverted configuration, the opposite of pictures of smiling faces.

This may be because the so-called “canonical” configuration of an emoticon is still sideways.

Are You Avoiding Showing Your Smile?

We live in an increasingly digital age, and over time it’s likely that emoticons will have to do more of the standing-in for face-to-face smiles than ever. Hopefully, though, you’re not someone who is avoiding in-person meetings because it’s much harder to muster an actual smile than it is to type an emoticon.

If you are avoiding showing your smile because it’s unattractive or makes you uncomfortable, cosmetic dentistry can help. To learn how, please contact My Hills Dentist in the Baulkham Hills area of Sydney today.