Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Your Brain on Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a big part of my sense of humor. My mom comments on how young I learned sarcasm. In all honesty, I probably wasn't incredibly young - the typical child is able to understand sarcasm at 6 years old.

There's a lot of research on sarcasm; on the positive side is research finding that engaging in sarcasm increases creativity, while on the negative side, research finds that sarcasm can damage relationships (though I think that's mainly true if the other person isn't sarcastic).

But what really interests me is how sarcasm is understood and the brain activity associated with sarcasm. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine highlights a host of research on sarcasm and brain activity, stating that the brain has to work harder to understand sarcasm, but that additional processing is actually good for you. An important component of understanding sarcasm is developing a "theory of mind" - the ability to understand how other people think.

Additionally, many parts of the brain are involved in comprehending sarcasm. The temporal lobe is involved in understanding prosody - larger units of speech - which involves not just the words in a phrase, but the intention, emotion, and presence of irony. The right hemisphere is especially involved in understanding speech in which the actual meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. (Sound familiar?)

A study published in 2005 also examined sarcasm in the brain, and found activity in the frontal lobe, particularly the prefrontal cortex - the so-called executive center of the brain, involved in decision-making - and linked the right hemisphere activity discussed above with the activity in the frontal lobe.
In sum, Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues propose a neural network for processing sarcastic utterances:
1.The left hemisphere language cortices interpret the literal meaning of the utterance;
2.The frontal lobes and right hemisphere process the intentional, social and emotional context, identifying the contradiction between the literal meaning and the social/emotional context;
3.The right ventromedial prefrontal cortex integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional knowledge of the situation and previous situations, helping the listener determine the true meaning.
So basically, the language center on the left side of the brain examines the words, the right hemisphere and frontal lobe determine the meaning, and the right side of the prefrontal cortex combines these two pieces of information.

Well, isn't that special?

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