Smiling face emoticon generates the same brain activity as a real face

New research has shown that the human brain now reacts in the same way when seeing a smiley emoticon as it does when presented with a human face, reports.

Whilst emoticons are typically seen as being colloquial and therefore not suitable for more official messages, a study from the Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia has now questioned this belief. It found that the brain reacts in the same way when presented with a smiley emoticon as with actual faces.

The research involved presenting 20 participants with three different images: a human face, a smiley emoticon and strings of random characters. Each then had their brain activity monitored when looking at each of these, from which scientists discerned the correlation.

Perhaps most telling was the fact that only a traditional smiley emoticon, :-), elicited this response. When it was written backwards, (-:, there was no such recognition, nor when presented upright, as typical human faces would most likely be.

Researchers also noted how this was an entirely manufactured response.

“There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with,” study author Dr Owen Churches told

“Before 1982 [when the emoticon face first came about] 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.”