Researchers at the University of Illinois (UI) have studied the brain wave patterns of people reading sentences paired with emojis. Sometimes the emojis matched the literal meaning of the sentence, but in other cases they were construed as indicating irony.
The researchers found the participants' brains processed the ironic emojis in the same way they process ironic language.
In three experiments, a total of 106 participants read sentences followed by an emoji, either a smile, frown or wink, while their brain waves were recorded. The participants then answered comprehension questions about how they ultimately interpreted the meaning of the sentences. The questions probed whether the participants had interpreted the sentence literally, based on only the words, or whether the wink emoji had changed their interpretation to a nonliteral (ironic) reading of the sentence.
When comparing the brain responses elicited by the ironic (wink) emojis with the nonironic emojis (smile or frown), the researchers found the brain-wave patterns elicited by the ironic emojis looked just like those seen in previous studies with ironic verbal language.
More interestingly, the size of each participant's brain response to the ironic emojis reflected how willing that participant was to let the wink emoji override the literal meaning of the sentence. This indicates that this brain response pattern is a reflection of the "work" that the readers' brains are doing to reinterpret the sentence in light of the wink emoji, just like when a person reinterprets the meaning of a sentence when someone is being sarcastic.
The research shows words combined with emojis can be considered another form of a multimodal communication, similar to words plus gestures or words plus facial expressions.
"Spoken and signed languages evolved long before humans developed written representations of language, and spoken and signed languages have ways of enhancing or changing meaning through mechanisms like intonation or gesture," said Benjamin Weissman, a UI doctoral student in linguistics. "Written language largely strips those extra modes for conveying meaning away, but emojis seem to be an important recent development that adds some of these mechanisms back into written forms of language. Emojis can convey irony or sarcasm in a written format in the same way we might use intonation to convey the same thing when speaking."
"This helps broaden our view of communication. It can be words, or words plus pictures, or words plus gesture, and it can be words plus emojis," said Darren Tanner, until recently a UI linguistics professor. "You can't just use a string of emojis, but when you pair emojis with words, they can enhance each other. The combined effect of written words plus emojis is bigger than words or emojis alone."