SAN FRANCISCO — Millennials, rejoice: A winking-face emoji is worth a slew of ironic words. The brain interprets irony or sarcasm conveyed by an emoji in the same way as it does verbal banter, researchers reported March 26 in San Francisco at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting.
Researchers measured brain electrical activity of college students reading sentences ending in various emojis. For example, the sentence “You are such a jerk” was followed by an emoji that matched the words’ meaning (a frowning face), contradicted the words (a smiling face) or implied sarcasm (a winking face). Then the participants assessed the veracity of the sentence—was the person actually a jerk?
Some participants read the sentence literally no matter what, said Benjamin Weissman, a linguist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But people who said emojis influenced their interpretation showed different brain activity in response to sentences with a winking emoji than ones with other emojis. A spike in electrical activity occurred 200 milliseconds after reading winky-face sentences, followed by another spike at 600 milliseconds.
A similar electrical pattern has been noted in previous studies in which people listened to sentences where intonation conveyed a sarcastic rather than literal interpretation of the words. That peak at 600 milliseconds has been linked to reassessment. It’s as if the brain reads the sentence one way, sees the emoji and then updates its interpretation to fit the new information, Weissman said.
This study provides more evidence suggesting that emojis aren’t just frivolous adornments to texts. “There are lots of complex linguistic functions they can serve,” Weissman said.