Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, A Weekend Musing: Technology, the Human Brain, and Emoticons

In my last post (the end of which contains, IMHO, one of the most important implications for spiritual formation I've ever posted) I reflected on how cultural evolution, due to its speed, has overrun the much slower (and blind) processes of natural selection working on the human mind. That is, cultural evolution often situates our brain in very UNNATURAL situations. In my last post examples were:

1. A brain that craves fats and sugars is surround by Krispy Kreams.

2. A brain that is skittish about snakes and spiders is ho-hum about cars and guns.

3. A brain that defines friend/family vary narrowly is now living in a global world full (to the brain at least) of strangers which fills us with wariness, fear, and paranoia.

Well, for a Saturday, I want to focus on a much more serious example: Emoticons.

Emoticons are those little smiley faces we add to e-mails to convey emotional tone and content:

:-) Happy

:-( Sad

;-) Wink

>:-I Anger

You get the point. The range of expression is amazing. See this chart from Yahoo.

As a psychologist I find this phenomenon interesting. As we all know, verbal communication involves both language (the semantic content of our speech) along with paralanguage (the non-verbals such as facial expressions, tone, body language). Often, as we know, language can send one message while paralanguage can send the exact opposite message. This is the case in sarcasm.

Most people are just unaware of how much our communication is paralinguistic. That is until the e-mail came around. E-mails are rife with misunderstandings. As are blog comments. Why? When speech is stripped of its paralinguistic content it is hard to judge if the writing is being funny or serious. Are they angry? Or just kidding?

Enter the Emoticon, the paralinguistic innovation of the e-mail. In the vacuum of non-verbals, the ubiquitous :-) allows us to joke and kid and use sarcasm on the internet and in e-mails. It's a way to signal emotional tone.

When I first started blogging and commenting on blogs I swore I would never fall to the level of using Emoticons. But I've given in. As paralinguistic devices they really are helpful.

What does this have to do with evolutionary psychology? Well, like Krispy Kream, the e-mail, as a cultural innovation, is very unnatural for the human brain. The brain is just ill-equipped to effectively communicate via this mechanism. Thus, e-mail communications and blog comments are full of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. It's an emotionally glitchy way to communicate.

In short, the Emoticon is a little piece of human nature manifesting itself in the world the e-communications. Particularly communications between strangers. Phrased another way, the Emoticon is a little time capsule of evolutionary history, pointing to a time when language evolved to communicate with people face to face.

Have a great weekend! :-)

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4 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, A Weekend Musing: Technology, the Human Brain, and Emoticons”

  1. Dr. Beck,
    I'm still enjoying your posts. :-)
    It's Krispy Kreme, by the way (at least, I'm fairly certain), and not 'Krispy Kream'...

  2. Richard,

    Thanks for such thoughtful and provocative posts! Going along with your point about emoticons and your thoughts about the need for intentional spiritual formation to help us "stretch" (do you think we can transcend?) the biological leash...this seems to point to the manner in which embodied new relational experiences have to play in that "stretching". In the Church we seem to privilege the verbal realm (we just need to know more and Christianity is about right doctrine), while ignoring the transformational potential of the new relational experience (the emotional regulation that can take place between people). Not only do we have biologically driven limits for the in-group, but we often experience painful relational dynamics that become "automatized" as unconscious organizing principles/internal working models that keep us closed towards others as well.

    The brain is a social organ and you give a great example of how technology can put us into an environment that can quickly deregulate us and leave us only with our own projections (how many blogging discussions "blow up" because of the lack of the non-verbal, emotional feedback we expect and need in normal conversations?). Hence the need for emoticons to help with this aspect. I wonder, if even in our face-to-face time within the Church if we give ourselves the time and discipline needed to experience relationships as the potential medium of transformation that they could be...the "Body of Christ" truly is crucial for each of us. Do you have thoughts about what this would like? Wesley's small groups? A type of group therapy? These are the questions I wrestle with as a psychologist and a psych. professor...I would love to hear your thoughts! Thanks again for your posts!

  3. Ron,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. Church, as least as I have experienced it, is too educational and rhetorical. Too much focus on "God talk" as the means for spiritual transformation.

    So how should we change? I'm hesitant to go with therapeutic models, because therapy, although very important for many, tends to be individualistic, self-focused, and targeted on “insight” or catharsis. The vision of the church seems to be one of transformative communal action.

    I guess I would like to see churches have more intentional spiritual formation programs, with spiritual directors and "coaches" rather than teachers/pastors. Aspects of spiritual formation will involve those relational factors you mention—confession, accountability, and transparency--and the spiritual formation teams would need to facilitate the creation of safe church structures to host/create/practice these relational disciplines. But the goal of all this interpersonal contact must be for the sake of the world. Healing is a broad biblical concept and should not be reduced to psychological adjustment, although that is a large part of it.

    Your's is a great and timely question. I haven’t done it justice here. It's a big issue, perhaps the most important one facing the church today.

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