‘Emojis enhance human interactions’ argues Royal Institution lecturer

Prof Sophie Scott will give the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas lectures on the evolution of language – and explain why gifs and emojis aren’t stupid

Prof Sophie Scott’s lectures will explore how and when humans first evolved language, how laughter links us to our animal past and the cues we send to others through facial expression, tone and smell.
 Prof Sophie Scott’s lectures will explore how and when humans first evolved language, how laughter links us to our animal past and the cues we send to others through facial expression, tone and smell. Photograph: Paul Wilkinson

Emojis enhance human interaction by putting “emotional, non-verbal information back in”, argues Prof Sophie Scott, who has been named as the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas lecturer.

Rather than marking a dismal low-point for communication, Scott believes that social media is allowing us to become increasingly sophisticated in our use of some of the most potent, but least studied, aspects of communication.

“People look at emojis or gifs and think ‘They’re stupid’, but they’re trying to address something,” she said. “It’s trying to put that emotional, non-verbal information back in.”

This year’s prestigious lecture series, on the theme The Language of Life, will explore how and when humans first evolved language, how laughter links us to our animal past and the subtle cues we send to others through facial expression, tone of voice and even smell. Scott will also look at how technology is transforming the way we talk to each other.

While some suggest social media is dumbing down our interactions, Scott draws parallels between the emergence of emojis and gifs and the introduction of punctuation to indicate the prosody of speech.

“Emojis are trying to do that exact same thing,” said Scott. “It’s all trying to add back in the stuff that would be pretty effortless if you were face to face.”

Scott argues that science has tended to neglect the non-verbal side of communication, possibly because it does not fit within common preconceptions of what “sounds properly sciencey”. “Actually there’s no real sense to that,” points out Scott, whose own research back catalogue includes work on beat-boxing, impressionists and whether rats laugh (they do).

Emerging evidence from brain imaging studies shows that while the brain’s left hemisphere is processing linguistic information, a parallel network in the right side of the brain is activated in response to the rhythm of speech, the person’s identity and emotions being expressed.

“There are brain systems that are picking up and decoding all that non-verbal information,” said Scott.

Non-verbal signals include so-called microexpressions, the fleeting and subtle movements of muscles around the eyes and mouth that occur within as little as 50 milliseconds, which Scott says often give clues to the emotions people try to mask using large expressions.

Specialists can learn to reliably decode these expressions – “it’s almost a phonetics of the face”, but even without training people pick up on flashes of anger, sadness or disgust beneath a smile.

Scott has spent more than a decade studying laughter, recently showing that while people can match the sound of an unknown person’s social laughter to their voice, it is almost impossible to match a voice to involuntary laughter.

“People can make all sorts of funny noises, it’s completely idiosyncratic,” said Scott. “You’re not being you, this thing is just happening.”

The differences point to involuntary laughter belonging to an ancient system for vocalising.

The Royal Institution’s annual lectures have a long and distinguished history. Created by Michael Faraday in 1825, past lecturers include Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Sir David Attenborough. Scott will be the seventh woman to present the lectures, and the fourth since 2009.

As is traditional, Scott’s lectures will include demonstrations and audience participation – the public’s ability to distinguish real versus fake laughter will be tested – and the Royal Institution said that a world record may be attempted, although they would not say in what.

Scott will also compare human and animal communication and cites a growing body of work showing that while animals might fall short of the sophistication of human language, primates exhibit similar networks to those we use when we communicate, and that dogs’ understanding of language rivals that of toddlers.

“There’s a long and noble history of humans thinking we’re the best at everything … but a lot of the new techniques have indicated we’re much less special than we think we are,” she said. “I’m sure if there were dolphin scientists out there they’d be going ‘We think they’re probably communicating with each other with those funny noises, but who knows?’”

Scott will also tackle the “myth” that women talk more than men (research suggests there’s virtually no difference), that women gossip more, or that men fail to pick up on emotional cues.

“Men wouldn’t be able to function if they couldn’t,” she said. “Stereotypes are powerful for a reason and they save a lot of time, but they’re not always true.”

Scott, 50, traces her current research on the human voice back to being “obsessed with accents” as a child growing up in Blackburn. She describes the Royal Institution’s lectures as a rare “glimpse into the the world of adult science”. “It was like someone let you in on a secret,” she said. “When I was a child there wasn’t really anything else out there. There is more now and people do take it more seriously.”

However, Scott believes scientists too often still face an ivory tower mentality in the academic world, where being able to explain your work to the public can be equated to being an intellectual lightweight. “I’m keen to turn that around,” said Scott, who has done a wide-range of public outreach, including stand-up comedy on science. “You can do a TED talk and it doesn’t make your science less important just because it’s accessible.”

“I’ve had people say ‘you just work in an easier area’,” she added. “That’s the wrong way around. It sounds easy because [I’ve] thought about how to communicate it.”

And, as technology rapidly evolves, what might the future hold for human communication?

“If there’s something that we can exploit for communication we’ll find a way – it’s a process that started as soon as humans put marks out in the world to store information,” Scott said. “With the cave paintings in Lascaux, maybe there was someone sitting around going ‘Ooh, I don’t know about these cave paintings, will it lead to us all stopping talking to each other?’ No, it’s what we do.’”

The Royal Institution lectures will be broadcast on BBC4 between Christmas and New Year, and Members of the Ri and registered schools can apply for tickets to the recordings from early September via rigb.org/christmas-lectures.