23 May 2005

The Anatomy Of Sarcasm

by Kate Melville

New research appearing in Neuropsychology details the anatomy of sarcasm and explains how the mind puts sharp-tongued words into context. The psychologists behind the research explain that for sarcasm to work, listeners must grasp the speaker's intentions in the context of the situation, which calls for sophisticated social thinking and whether we understand that everyone thinks different thoughts. An example of what happens when this "theory of mind" is missing can be found in autistic children, who have problems interpreting irony, the more general category of social communication into which sarcasm falls.

Researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues at the University of Haifa studied 25 participants with prefrontal-lobe damage, 16 participants with posterior-lobe damage and 17 healthy control subjects. The participants listened to brief recorded stories, some sarcastic, some neutral, that had been taped by actors reading in a corresponding manner. Examples of sarcasm included: "Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard." Meaning: "You're a real slacker!" Following each story, researchers asked a factual question to check story comprehension and an attitude question to check comprehension of the speaker's true meaning. In the example above, did the manager believe Joe was working hard?

Participants with prefrontal damage were impaired in comprehending sarcasm, whereas the people in the other two groups had no such problem. Within the prefrontal group, people with damage in the right ventromedial area had the most profound problems in comprehending sarcasm. The ventromedial area is the rear part of the prefrontal cortex, and includes the cortex on top of the orbits of both eyes and the inside part of the frontal lobes.

The researchers said that the findings fit with what we already know about brain anatomy. The prefrontal cortex is involved in pragmatic language processes and complex social cognition, thus it followed that that participants with prefrontal damage had faulty "sarcasm sensors". At the same time, damage to the ventromedial area, which is involved in personality and social behavior, will disrupt not only understanding sarcasm but also understanding social cues, empathic response and emotion recognition.

Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues proposed the following as 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.
"Understanding sarcasm requires both the ability to understand the speaker's belief about the listener's belief and the ability to identify emotions," the researchers concluded. "This study contributes to our understanding of the relation between language and social cognition."