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A group of British and Australian cyberpsychologists argues that emojis deserve way more research attention than they’re getting - and scientists have discovered how to create on-demand killer mice!

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Sources:
http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(16)30178-4
http://www.grumdrig.com/emoji-list/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4980471/
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2015/11/18/meet-the-author-who-translates-classic-literature-into-emoji/
https://repository.edgehill.ac.uk/7148/
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230547252_Brain_Activity_When_Reading_Sentences_and_Emoticons_An_fMRI_Study_of_Verbal_and_Nonverbal_Communication
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297758167_An_exploration_of_psychological_factors_on_emoticon_usage_and_implications_for_judgement_accuracy

http://www.cell.com/fulltext/S0092-8674(16)31743-3
https://www.britannica.com/science/amygdala
Hank: You might be one of those people who's just like "everything is an emoji, I'm just gonna text you cauliflower, eggplant, taco, bear," or you might be more like me, just a few a a time, maybe like a quick wink emoji. But have you thought about why, and how, you really use them? Or even how they might be influencing your relationships?

In a paper published this week in a journal called “Trends in Cognitive Sciences,” a group of British and Australian cyberpsychologists argues that emojis deserve way more research attention than they’re getting. They say that the ubiquitous icons offer a unique window into human behavior -- and a rich data set that can help us better understand how we interact online.

In case you’ve been hiding in a basement somewhere -- or you’ve just never moved past emoticons -- emojis are the tiny pictures people use to enhance their emails, texts, and online posts. There’s of course ‘pile of poo,’ ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes,’ ‘face with tears of joy,' and of course, 'the flag of Belgium.’

Since their debut in Japan in the 1990s, emojis have popped up in virtually every social network. And by now you’ve probably noticed that they’re especially useful for communicating things like tone or emotion. When you’re talking with someone face-to-face, these elements are conveyed by the pitch or volume of your voice, and your facial expressions.

But over chat, it’s harder to tell if someone’s saying “GREAT JOB!” or “great job.” That’s where emoji like ‘‘winking face’ or possibly ‘upside-down face’ can help.

So, what’s going on in your brain when you’re reading a message like that on your phone? Is it different from hearing someone being sarcastic, or seeing someone smirk? And are you experiencing your emotional response in the same way?

If you aren’t, does it matter? These are the questions that cyberpsychologists -- and yes, they’re a thing! -- would like to start finding answers to. Some of that means hooking up volunteers to brain-imaging machines while they send or receive emoji messages.

By tracking blood flow in the brain, neuroscientists can see which parts of the brain are involved in emoji communication -- and see how it compares to in-person conversation. In other cases, researchers can use social networking sites and observe conversations with emojis to learn more about how we act online. Studies have already found, for example, that people tailor their emoji use to match the situation…which makes sense.

It’s probably not the best idea to send a bunch of thumbs-up or tongue-sticking-out-faces in an email to your boss. But your best friend on Snapchat won’t mind if you used ‘em. To cyberpsychologists, behavior like this is just the beginning. Chances are, in the next few years, we’ll witness the dawn of a new emoji science!

Speaking of your brain and how it works, scientists at Yale University reported last week that they’ve figured out the neural circuits behind predatory hunting. And they did it by turning mice into ravenous predators, with the flick of a switch.

Mice will naturally hunt things like crickets, but it turns out that activating certain neurons in their brains can turn them into better killers -- even causing them to pounce and chomp down on inanimate, inedible objects -- like bottle caps and twigs! In short: These scientists made on-demand killer mice. They should make shirts for them, so they can wear them so that we know ‘On-Demand Killer Mouse,’ it says so right on the back!

The team made their discovery with a technique called optogenetics, which uses genetic engineering to introduce light-sensitive proteins into select brain cells. Then they can use laser light to excite those neurons. In this case, that region is the central amygdala, the almond-shaped structure deep in the center of the brain. It’s often associated with fear and anxiety, but it’s also involved with positive emotions and learning.

And so far, it looks like the hunting impulse involves two separate clusters of cells in the amygdala, each with its own job. One set of neurons extends into the midbrain, and controls the pursuit of prey. Another projects into the brainstem to coordinate muscles in the neck and jaw, for biting.

The biologists figured this out by engineering mice so they could activate either or both of these cell clusters. And to verify that these clusters were involved with different aspects of hunting, they also damaged one of those cell clusters in some mice, and damaged the other cluster in other mice.

Then they gave all of the mice some crickets. When the researchers activated the amygdala of mice with damage to either group of neurons, the animals performed only one hunting behavior well. In the mice that had their neurons for chasing prey destroyed, it took 10 times as long for them to start tracking down their targets.

And in the ones without the neurons for biting, the animals mostly used their paws to pin down their victims -- which was much less successful tactic than using their jaws. When both neuron clusters were intact and turned on, the mice not only captured the insects faster, they also started to attack wooden sticks and bottle caps -- objects they hardly touched otherwise.

The animals didn’t eat more food than normal, or attack fellow mice. Which suggests that the Yale team found the specific brain circuit for hunting, rather than for hunger or aggression. Put in emoji terms of course, you can think of their findings as combining this [mouse] and this [lightning], to create this[death].

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