Privilege Blog

Can You Feel Emojis In Your Brain Or Am I Nuts, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:54am


We’ve gone through all kinds of technical change in the past three decades (lots before that but first I wasn’t born and then wasn’t paying much attention). Think of the 80s. Anyone else remember accessing the company mainframe? How about their first desktop computer? And then the accelerating automation and reach of laptops, mobile phones, smart phones, and social media. Astounding.

But if I back way up, I think only two phenomena have affected my brain itself. Googling, surely. Remember not knowing a fact? Remember searching in your own mind for answers? Now it’s as though I can feel the Google button in the upper right hand corner of my head, just behind my right eyebrow.

Which, wait, I guess I can search to see if anyone has done neurological research on how our brains fire before Googling? Later maybe, or maybe not. The desire for knowledge flares and subsides.

The other big shift? For me at least: emojis. Last week I was Gchatting with my son. We were talking about the weather, Gchat doesn’t support emojis, I wrote, “Sun emoji.” I’ve been known to write “Sparkle heart” too.

As someone who learned to read before kindergarten, took the refuge of the awkward in books, wrote journals all through high school, studied French, Italian, and some Latin in college, this felt like a transmutation. The move from words to character-based meaning felt like it happened in new neurons.

This time, dead center of my brain. Above and behind my upper teeth. Between my ears.

I should ask first, do you use emojis often? If you do, how do they feel in your thought processes?

My impressions here could be influenced by the year I spent working with Chinese colleagues. I remember a marketing meeting in our Shanghai office. One of our staff was talking with a printing vendor. They spoke Mandarin, I listened. Because Chinese is a character-based language, and there are a lot of homophomes, i.e. two characters that sound the same but mean different things, at one point the two had to stop their conversation and trace the characters in the air with their fingers. Clarity.

Emojis are very different from Chinese characters, emoji sounds don’t matter per se. But I sense a system similarity I can’t quite articulate. Character-based communication, which relies by nature on a limited set of signs, has to overload each signifier with multiple possibilities. This can lead to confusion and ambiguity, but, if you commit to understanding, also to richer communication. The participants have to agree between them, overtly or by community practice over time, on specific meanings. The process of disambiguation and agreement brings us closer.

Anyway. I always thought I’d have liked to study linguistics, but I didn’t, and I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Except I swear I feel neurons firing in new ways, and I would love to know if I have company.

My favorite is probably Sparkle Heart. Most used, Laughing So Hard I’m Crying. Hoping to use, hmm, maybe the Crab? Or maybe the Weird Empty Sofa With A Lamp? The possibilities are finite. Perhaps better than endless.

Have a wonderful weekend. Tree Sun Sparkle Heart Kissy Face to everyone.


69 Responses

  1. I have been fighting using text speak and emojis…but feel myself weakening. I will say that I have never, ever used lol. But have occasionally tried IMO..after a reader on my blog commented using it, and I had to look it up on…google…because I didn’t know what it meant. I still don’t get <3 which I automatically read as "greater than 3" because those math symbols were burned into my brain in high school. What the heck does that mean anyway? And some of the emojis I don't understand at all. My niece sent me a message a while ago with an emojii… and I couldn't tell if it was blowing a kiss, whistling, or telling me I was full of hot air. But that weird empty sofa one, that could be interestingly ambiguous.

    1. @Sue Burpee, So interesting to me. Why fight it? Does it feel like laziness? And here’s a tip, if you have the Character Viewer on a Mac, you can see what the official meanings are of each emoji;). Which, BTW, I always want to spell, “Emojii.”

  2. I hate emojis, and don’t even look at them when they are part of the conversation, unless they are sent to me by a grandchild. However if you are really interested in a thoughtful examination of character driven language, I would urge you to read “Dreaming in Chinese” by Deborah Fallows (a Harvard educated linguist, she is the wife of reporter James Fallows, and lived with him in China while he was reporting from there.) Written for the lay reader, it is a really thoughtful look at symbolic language.

    1. @Ellen, Yes, I am interested, thanks for the reference. But I am so curious. Why hate them? The only thing I can think of that’s similar in my own emotional lexicon is the hatred I feel for vulgar house decor, and that comes from my family customs. I tend to save hate for things like the current American political discourse, when I can.:(

    2. @Ellen, This is interesting and makes me wonder what a dyslexic would make of Chinese characters as the fundamental problem is phonologic and phonemic awareness with regards to the English language. I would love to read “Dreaming in Chinese” (not that I know how to read Chinese).

  3. I love emojis. I hate texting on my phone so emojis saved me typing about twent words at times. Plus they are getting more nuanced emojis. It’s just change. Let’s not forget Aristotle didn’t like people writing in books and preferred the oral tradition.

  4. I think I dislike emojis because of their strong element of whimsy. Also, if anything in a block of text is moving or animated, I am in a panic to get it off the screen. By the way, what does the sparkling heart mean?

    1. @Parnassus, Ah, I find emojis kind of ugly, I agree. Particularly the ones on the Android platform. All the faces look like squished jujubes. I am trying to get used to animated GIFs but I agree it is hard. And the sparkle heart, it means what you and your friends want it to mean, but for me it means that feeling of happiness and affection you have for something that is precious and makes your heart sparkle, if only for a little minute.

  5. I am getting pulled in increasingly to using them simply to add flavour or colour, but essentially, at some level, I mistrust their potential for nuance. I’m a big fan of complexity and overall, I sense that emojis move us in a different direction. But you have me interested in doing a bit of research and finding out what cultural theorists, linguists, and sociologists make of them. Interested, but not sure I’ll commit to doing the work.

    1. I see that the emojis I so cleverly figured out how to add to my comment got stripped out by WordPress. Also amused at being admonished by WordPress that I was “posting my comment too quickly. Slow down!” Well alright then…

    2. @Frances/Materfamilias, Ha! Bossy WordPress indeed! I am installing a plugin, and we will see how that works. I doubt I’ll ever put one in a post, but, maybe I’ll try a few here in the comments. Unless there is a widespread revolt;).

  6. I love emojis. My daughters and I have entire text conversations using nothing but those silly things. They’re fun. Although one has to be discerning when using them. I once sent a daughter the, ahem, poop one thinking it was a campfire. I got back the raised eyebrow emoji and many question marks. Sooo, pay attention.

    Incidentally, I also studied French, Italian and a little bit of Latin. Our volleyball team was the Aegri Agricoli.(don’t ask). Never claimed to be any good at Latin, just a rite of passage in those days.

    1. @Mary anne, Pay attention! Ha! Yes. Took me some effort to get comfortable with the p*** emoji. Old cultures die hard;).


      Let’s pretend that’s a High WASP.

  7. I love emoji-maybe it’s my inner child, maybe my love for math,foreign languages ……Imagine Esperanto. Or sign language! Have we made a full circle?
    When I started with Viber,I loved stickers (I still do)- but annoyed even my son
    So,I control myself and behave!

  8. I use emojis. Usually, I will use the most random, inappropriate, silly decorative ones. I don’t feel that they accurately express emotion-at least not mine, but they can express, indirectly, a kind of ridiculous, sublime goofiness. I have sent my husband erotic texts using suggestively positioned fruits and vegetables and hand gestures followed by a cocktail and cigarette emojis. My favorite are the cat faces and the utterly charming dancing playboy bunny chorus girls. I use them A LOT. And the martini emoji.
    They are all part of techno that I have to admit I don’t understand, and the social media that I am to old and unhip at 53 to give a brown poo emoji about,. So I stage my quiet revolution by not taking them seriously (!?) at all and just laughing along. Traffic sign-cigarette-rainbow-chorus girls!

    1. @diane, I tried to reply to your post but I messed up and it ended up as a new post, further down in the replies. :(

  9. I use and like emoji symbols…on IG and when I text.
    Perhaps because I feel like they add a human touch to the bland character of regular type and text…humanizing it if you will!

    Interject and paste “Smiley face and heart sparkle!”

  10. I “sparkle heart” emojis! For me it started with the mother of one of my young patients. She used them often and liberally, left my laughing so much with each text message. Since I use text messaging almost exclusively with my patients and parents, I now use them in almost every message, and they do, too! Emojis add color, emotion, comfort, praise, support, laughter, and soften a serious note. I’ll text a mother “Hope all is calm at your house” – insert flower, palm tree, sparkly heart. Reply is something like “Yes, all is calm – insert person in bathtub emoji – Today….For now…But always at the ready of what may come – insert tornado, face with one eye open tongue hanging out – Happy Autumn! – insert several autumn leaves, squirrel, acorn and turkey”. I think emojis are a secret bonding language that help make our messages, and lives, more enjoyable. Sending you many sparkly hearts today, Lisa!

    1. @Candace, Your texts sound like veritable works of emoji art. I love the conjunction of tornado and person in bath. Have never used person in bath – I like it as a symbol of a moment of peace!

  11. diane – I guess there are 2 of us named Diane here – me with a capital D and you, with a small one. This might be confusing to some.

    Your post cracked me up – you are by far the funnier (and raunchier) Diane and so perhaps I should just put away my laptop and let you reply for both of us from now on.

    I don’t do emojis so this will have to suffice :).

  12. Sorry – I really don’t like them . I find them ugly and far too yellow . If arbiters of taste use them does that mean I have to as well ? I’m afraid I don’t text either nor use neologisms like ‘remediate’ instead of remedy . I even write emails in paragraphs – is there any hope for me ?

    1. @Rukshana Afia, Of course it is a matter of personal choice:). And I write emails in paragraphs too, also end my text with a period, often. I guess I don’t feel it’s binary – we pick and choose what works for us and our communities.

  13. I’ve got teen and twenty-something daughters who have taught me to love emojis. They can add just a little something to a communication — sometimes silliness or regret, or some other emotion which can otherwise be miscommunicated in a text. The emoji can fill in for an absent facial expression (even if it’s not actually of a face). I’ve also learned from my daughters’ texts that they can be a polite way to wind down a long text exchange, as if to say, ” I’m not talking anymore, but I’m giving you this farewell (insert emoji, like smiley face, sparkle heart, etc) to convey that I’m not just walking away without saying farewell.” Or maybe they’re just a little mystifying to me still, and I’m just kidding myself that I’ve got the foggiest idea how to deploy them. I get the sparkle heart, though. I send that one to my girls all the time, and my meaning is unambiguous. :-)

    1. @Kristina, Yes, it is a way of responding that indicates “I’m here but I’m opening the door to get out,” or, “I’m here but I don’t have much time…” Useful in that way. Sparkle heart to our children, always:).

  14. Tried to add an emoji symbol for “peace” here in my comment, and instead the word appeared. Maybe a bit of code is needed in your template, or as you noted, a plug-in. A emoji menu for us to choose from when leaving a comment could be another possibility.

    At any rate, I think they’re a fun little graphical shorthand, and I’m all for using symbols if everyone comprehends their meaning. But what does the baahhing sheep mean or the little goat?

    Your description of the two colleagues negotiating toward a meaningful understanding (so critical in the business world!) that could otherwise have been ambiguous at least or misunderstood at worst illustrates sensitivity to that aspect. “What? You mean you did not want us to ship 20,000 widgets? Only 2,000?”

    Isn’t that what communication is all about? Achieving understanding? If an emoji can suffice, why not use one?

  15. I assure you that Dreaming in Chinese is written in English. And you all would really like the author as well as her book.
    I have to figure out which emojis you’re talking about. I use a smiley face and send my husband kisses and hearts. Now I need to find sparkle heart!

    1. @MJ, I apologize. I miscommunicated. What I meant was that I don’t know what using character driven language would be like versus letter symbols. I am definitely putting Dreaming in Chinese on my reading list.

  16. Love emogis. usually use woman with dark glasses and thumbs up. Seems like me. The dark glsses hide the fact that maybe I don’t have eye makeup on and we can all use thumbs up.

    Also love the sparkle and color that they add to text. So thumbs up to emogis.

  17. I think it’s interesting you mention the Chinese language in the same post about emojis. There was a lot of talk about the apple watch and how the way you could send a drawing would appeal more to those who spoke languages like that. Where every stroke, and the order in which they were laid down, could change the meaning of an entire word. We English speakers don’t have a language like that, but I suspect something similar will evolve. We already have acronyms like LOL, ROFL, and WTH. LOL is now an actual word, it’s in the dictionary. The emojis seem like the logical next step.

    We communicate in tweets, texts, and status updates more and more. With this in mind having a way to help convey emotion is crucial. Emojis serve that function. How many internet arguments have been caused by someone not understanding someone was being sarcastic, or even being serious. It can be difficult to discern tone when you’re not able to hear the other persons voice, see their face, read their body language. Emojis are just the next evolution of language.

    1. @koolchicken, I suspect the continued contact and flow between East and West may inspire a lot of things to evolve – language, design, culture, lots of it.

  18. Heart heart heart emojis, ascii art, everything. Have studied Spanish, Latin, Russian, French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Art History. I like all kinds of languages ;-)

  19. I don’t use emojis. I don’t own a smart phone. I don’t text unless I’m forced to by circumstances beyond my control.

    I worry that I spend too much time online as it is. I don’t want to carry the habit with me when I leave my house. (I’m also too cheap to pay for something I don’t need.)

    But if typing “sparkle heart” makes you feel happy, what’s the harm? Every now and again, I add a heart to a comment using alt codes. Sometimes I even add two. ♥ ♥

  20. I like emojis. I haven’t used them enough, as they also confuse me, but I see so much potential for humanity in them, that I want to use them more.

  21. Some friends and I have had almost a comically bad 2016. Deaths of relatives and dear friends, car trouble, broken toilet, exploded hot water heater, the list goes on. So now we have an emoji combination that has become a running joke that we text to each other as each new bad thing happens:

    -Smiley face poop pile

    This is our code for “sh*t sandwich with a side of fries”. It’s juvenile, to be sure, but it brings a smile to my face when yet another thing has gone wrong.

    1. @Sarah, I am so sorry for your bad 2016, but I am absolutely heartened and smiling at your ability to make something out of the experience. That is awesome. And your friends. xox.

  22. Why ever not?!? As you can see, I am a compulsive exclamation point user, which goes together with emojis like horse and carriage. Since language is a living changing thing…or had better be if it wants to stick around…I just see emojis as part of the evolution of technology influencing our language. It’s life! (Exclamation point, exclamation point) Good to think about, though.

  23. It took me awhile but I finally warmed up to them. They can be handy in text and messenger because sometimes it’s easy to convey the wrong tone and offend someone. I don’t care for the overuse of them. Mainly I use them for happy birthday wishes on Facebook. But then, I also do not care for the overuse (or almost any use) of exclamation points. Im sure i sometimes come across as very dull to those who are !!!!!!!!! Inclined, (insert Winky face here).

    1. @Charlene, You don’t come across as dull to me – but I’m not one for multiple exclamation points so much, more an overuse of the winking face;).

  24. A gift my older dad gave me was his love of the new. It was not a blind love of the new, but it was a love of the new. He delighted in examining unfamiliar things, and he was unafraid to work to figure them out. My dad was a well-read, word-lover who was also an electronics and amateur radio expert, woodworker and fixer-of-everything, who eagerly learned about the first computers available to him in his work. He was loading LINUX onto his PC the week he died of pneumonia at 89.

    Since I went from the English department at Berkeley to the SRI AI Lab in the late seventies, I definitely remember mainframes. Before I became a researcher for them, I asked to work for a time as the computer operator in the AI Lab so I could understand the computer, which was a DEC 1090-T that often broke down. The bottles of Ridge wine cooling under the floor boards—one of the lab founders, Charlie Rosen, was also a Ridge founder—were a further incentive.

    I love Emojis, though not all of them, I love the Emojis I find to be most beautiful. I don’t like all the facial Emojis, but I like one sun and one full moon that I think are especially classic and appealing. I love the colored hearts. The pink is my least favorite. I wish there was a saffron-colored heart, a gray heart, a caramel-colored heart. I would enjoy an addition of a more generally sophisticated palette to the current brights.

    When I started at SRI, I used the ARPANET. We had email and could communicate with people around the U.S, mostly at university locations. I loved it. One of the first things I learned in using the ARPANET was how to add ASCII Emoticons, and thus was born my love of art additions to text.

    People have created art using typewriters, then TTYs, then PCs. Some people remain loyal to ASCII Emoticons and scorn Emojis, but I like them all. The creativity of the human brain enchants me. Though, I don’t want to be forced into using an Emoji, so I, for example, put a space between a colon and a close parentheses to make a smile on Facebook to circumvent Facebook automatically substituting an Emoji smiley face of their choosing. Same with a open pointy bracket, a space, and a 3 instead of an auto-heart. I’m also put off by the size of the Facebook Emojis, so I generally avoid them, but when others use them, I find some of them sweetly expressive.

    The beauty and fun of Emojis was demonstrated to me by Rachel Zell and Ayse Eringer who used them to respond to my 2014 year of selfies in the most extraordinarly creative ways. I was beguiled, and began to use them more and seek out those I found most charming. Since Ayse is the executive editor of a journal at UNC, I find her use of Emojis particularly interesting.

    I’m *certain* our brains are changed by the use of Emojis, as they are by our every negative or positive thought, every decision or necessity to look at one thing instead of another, all of it. The more I learn about brain plasticity and neural pathways, the more I realize everything we do affects our brain in significant ways.

    Thank you for writing about this. It was fun to think about it.

    1. @Katherine C. James, My pleasure! And I should go back through your selfie year on IG and see if I can pick out the emoji use you mention. And I too would love more tasteful emojis – I wonder if market will demand and technology permit?

  25. I do not use them OFTEN.I held OUT for a long long time!
    I have NEVER used LOL which I always thought meant LOTS OF LOVE!Nor any of those BTW, ETC ETC…………..a smiley face a flower are my GO TO SIGNS!

  26. I still prefer to talk. And, even when texting or emailing I don’t use those characters. I just say


  27. No surprise that I love emojis.

    I do have a special place in my sparkle heart for LOL. For years, my father ended all his emails with LOL – he thought it meant lots of love and I suppose, at one point, it did!

  28. Lisa, I *sparkle heart* this. So fascinating to think what areas of our brain would be firing in response. And the brain Google button! I have this. :) But I still remember searching encyclopedias, how terribly quaint that will seem to my children.

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