The Frontal Cortex

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a cognitive challenge. In order to get the sarcastic sentiment, we can’t simply decode the utterance, or decipher the literal meaning of the sentence. Instead, we have to understand the meaning of the words in their larger social context. For example, if it’s a beautiful day outside – the sun is shining, etc – and somebody states “What a nice day!,” there is no sarcasm; the sentence makes perfect sense. However, if the same statement is uttered on a rainy day, then there is a clear contradiction, which leads to an interpretation of sarcasm. (We typically exaggerate the expression of sarcastic statements, thus making it easier to pick up the verbal/social contradiction.) Psychologists refer to such utterances as an incongruent word-emotion situation.

Given the mental difficulties involved in deciphering sarcasm, it’s interesting to note that the right hemisphere has been repeatedly implicated as an essential component of sarcastic processing. For instance, a 2005 study of patients with lesions to the ventromedial area of the right prefrontal cortex found that they exhibited severe deficits in understanding sarcastic speech, at least when compared to people with left PFC lesions. And then there’s this 2008 study, which showed that people hear sarcasm better when it’s presented to their left ear. (The auditory system, like the visual system, is a case of crossed wires, so that the left ear projects first to your right hemisphere and vice versa.)

What makes this data on sarcasm so surprising is that, until recently, the right hemisphere was thought to play little role in the processing of language. The neuroscientist Roger Sperry, in his 1981 Nobel lecture, summarized the prevailing view of the right hemisphere when he began studying it: “The right hemisphere was not only mute and agraphic, but also dyslexic, word deaf and apraxic, and lacking generally in higher cognitive function.”

But that, of course, is wrong; the right hemisphere is not a mostly useless chunk of tissue. One of my favorite metaphors for our hemispheres comes from Jonathan Schooler, at UCSB. He argues that our hemispheres follow the same information processing strategy as the visual system. “One of the most fundamental features of how the brain sees is that it actually has two different ways of making sense of the world,” he told me recently. “We’ve got one visual system that’s interested in fine-grained details and clarity. That’s the system associated with the fovea and cones in the retina, which we use to perceive things like words on the page. But we’ve also got a more coarse-grained system too, which allows us to quickly grasp an entire scene, or to see some movement out of the corner of our eye.” According to this metaphor, the left hemisphere excels at the fine-grained and literal, while the right hemisphere is better at coarse-grained analysis, allowing us to make sense of things within their context.

Reality, in other words, is so richly complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time. We need to see the trees, but we also have to remember the forest. Of course, these implicit and connotative connections – all the stuff that’s not in the dictionary definition – are what make language such a richly expressive tool. When you read a poem, or hear some emotionally charged words, or laugh at the punch line of a joke, you are relying, in large part, on the right hemisphere. Sarcasm, of course, is a perfect example of speech that requires a contextual understanding. The only way to know if someone is being sarcastic is to look around. The incongruity isn’t in the words – it’s in the world.

Comments

  1. #1 Ted
    February 25, 2010

    HI – I saw this Sarcasm piece via a link from you on Twitter (I’m @lectrictic – a Follower. I obviously find these mind issues fascinating, which is why I’m here.)

    One thing bothers me about what you wrote here. I get an image (or is it a word picture?) of experimental scientists getting overly hung-up on their single-variable, double blind tests (or whatever jargon applies.)

    Though the point is made at the end, kinda sorta indirectly, it is my understanding that both sides of the brain are woven together by a zillion connections. They ‘talk’ to each other and they hash out meaning. The article makes it sound like we ALL walk around with either a left or right lesion!

    The two sides interact. We get visual flashes of memory based on words we hear, for instance. Witty people don’t seem to know where their quips come from, but they combine word play and visual references, etc etc

    I happen to write left handed and, for instance, do sports stuff – to the degree that I can do them – right handed. I CAN be sarcastic, though I don’t like to use it on people (at least not if they’re in the room). I ‘GET’ sarcasm, or enough of it to know what I know I get.) But my all-right handed brother is the sarcasm champ in the family! (I can hold my own well enough – and as adults, certainly, it’s all friendly fire)..

    The degree of what one hemisphere or another does is fascinating and worth study. Issues like why some people are ‘weighted’ to one side or the other… but just in the same way that the general question of who is talented, or rather more talented, in various areas – even when the comparison is between two like-sided people.

    Thanks
    @lectrictic

  2. #2 royniles
    February 25, 2010

    I find this piece on sarcasm to be emphatically satirical.

  3. #3 Jordan
    February 25, 2010

    This is really interesting; I always thought sarcasm’s real meaning was based on inverting the meaning of a sentence based on subconscious cues. For instance, if I said, “What a GREAT day…” with an emphasis on the ‘great’ and a trailing off and lowering pitch toward the end of the sentence, a listener could ascertain that, 1) These verbal clues are endemic to sarcastic statements, and 2) Jordan probably knows that it’s NOT a great day out since he’s carrying an umbrella.

    And to an extent, I have to imagine this IS what your brain is doing; however, your article brought up some interesting points; why is it that the brain wouldn’t choose to localize language functions on one hemisphere? And since it doesn’t localize, does that mean that, as @lectrictic noted, right-handed people can be more sarcastic/witty?

    Great article, thanks so much!
    @J6M8

  4. #4 Siamang
    February 25, 2010

    I concur with what Jordan’s saying.

    Tone can convey a lot. I can say “I had a GREAT day at work” on the phone to my wife and my wife will know, by tone alone, whether I’m being sarcastic or not.

  5. #5 Ian Leslie
    February 25, 2010

    There’s a specific mental function involved in the recognition of sarcasm: mindreading. You have to be able to work out the difference between the literal meaning of the speaker’s words and the meaning she intends to convey. Autistic people, who have difficulty with mindreading, have trouble distinguishing irony and sarcasm. Rebecca Saxe has located our mindreading abilities in the right brain (right temporo-parietal junction).

  6. #6 royniles
    February 25, 2010

    Sarcasm is one means of causing another to draw an inference that differs from the overtly stated message. It may be difficult for some to draw inferences, just as some cannot handle inductive reasoning. But sarcasm has a cultural component that has little to do with which half of the brain might be most fit to exercise the skill. Because for the most part it’s a learned skill, and the style of sarcasm is different from culture to culture and from class to class within that culture. For example, Americans may not get what the French are inferring, and French of course don’t expect Americans to be properly sarcastic to begin with. (But what can you expect from people who thought Jerry Lewis was our best satirist.)

  7. #7 harold
    February 26, 2010

    But that, of course, is wrong; the right hemisphere is not a mostly useless chunk of tissue.

    An otherwise interesting article; why did you have to present this absurd straw man?

    Roger Sperry in no way whatsoever suggested that the “right hemisphere is a useless chunk of tissue”.

    It is characteristic of journalists to exploit the fact that past imporant scientists lived at the time they lived, and did not have access to future data, to imply that important scientists who made major contributions were “stupid” or that their advances were “wrong” because they have been expanded and modified.

    Others may not be familiar with the history of neuroscience, but for me, this kind of thing is irritating.

  8. #8 Gramsci
    February 26, 2010

    That was a GREAT reading of the quote and its context, Harold.

  9. #9 j collin
    February 27, 2010

    To add to royniles comments, above:

    sarcasm, like irony, and much humor, typically offers a subversive frame shift, wherein the dominant frame is contrasted by a sub-dominant frame, as with the phrase “nice day” on a day when the weather, by popular measures is anything but. Sarcasm seems to be a different a kind of irony that includes a sort of affective exaggeration, or “snark”, perhaps as a means of ‘muscling’ or making hte listener more sensitive to the joke.

    For the subversion at the heart of the irony / sarcasm to take place, as royniles has noted, there needs to be an established context to subvert. This context may have cognitive roots, but I suspect it is seeded culturally or socially. Assuming that the metaphor for the left/right sensitivity holds, the “right” brain is less likely to be sensitive to the subtle or “fine grained” affective exaggeration inherent in the sarcastic irony.

    I think a fellow named L David Ritchie studies this sort of thing at the cognitive level.

  10. #10 harold
    February 28, 2010

    Gramsci –

    Yes it was. It wasn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it was an unfair implication.

    An interesting aspect of sarcasm is that the one who deploys it is often implying that his or her point is obvious. Hence, it can create a condescending or superior tone. This can backfire and end up making the sarcastic person look silly.

  11. #11 j collin
    February 28, 2010

    agreed. scarcasm, like irony, requires an established agreement on what represents the dominant frame to both sender and receiver. Scarcasm is basicly irony with a bitter inflection. I’m saying that it is this inflection that seems to imply to the receiver the difference between dominant and subversive frames.

    i’m curious to learn how paradox is processed by the brain.

  12. #12 Johnny Honestly
    February 28, 2010

    Here is a non-scientific explanation, to persuade you to use it sparingly: The Sarcasm Lesson

  13. #13 Gramsci
    March 1, 2010

    Jonah did not imply Roger Sperry said the right brain was a “useless chunk of tissue.” Roger Sperry himself was implying that other people thought that (to wit, the people who had studied the issue before him). The key qualifier is “when he began studying it.” Your beef would have to be with Roger Sperry’s treatment of his predecessors, not Jonah.

    Now as for the sarcasm, I am aware of all Internet sarcasm traditions. I assumed people reading the comment would understand I was not just ribbing you about a misreading, but making a larger allusion to and joke about the discussion of sarcasm (e.g. the inflection of GREAT) above. Moreover, you seemed like a thoughtful person who, when cued, would go back and see my point when you reread the passage. My point wasn’t obvious– I just thought you would see it yourself (not to say agree with it totally) upon review. I’m sorry that assumption clouded my point, and I’m sorry my aimed-for tone did not hit the mark.

  14. #14 harold
    March 1, 2010

    Gramsci –

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Obviously, I did read Jonah’s construction of the post as implying that Sperry had held “useless chunk of tissue” attitude, and critiquing Sperry for it.

    You’ll note that I said that it was otherwise a very interesting post.

    Since I was apparently wrong, I retract that particular complaint. With the caveat that I have good reading comprehension and, actually, a very high appreciation of satire and sarcasm, so that a lesser complaint about the exact wording of the essay may remain in force.

    Overall, I find this to be a very interesting blog, which does a good job of dealing with somewhat controversial subject matter in an intelligent way.

  15. #15 Mike Sandifer
    March 3, 2010

    Sarcasm simply highlights irony, which involves novelty. Ir represents new information, in the way of a twist of current perpectives or literally new data. Laughter is a reflection of pure irony, above any associated gain or loss. Hence, sarcasm is often funny.

    Sarcasm, revealing the novel, also happens to send signals regarding mental fitness and sometimes social rank. It can be used cruely as a demonstration of superiority over another in these regards, as well as a lack of personal social value for the target.

    Given these social cues, sarcasm is often seen as attractive, except when seen as cruel with respect to people that others value.

  16. #16 j collin
    March 4, 2010

    I have taken to thinking that scarcasm is a sort of cultural trope left over from the 1970s, indicating status in an ‘age of incredulity’ where subverting the ‘dominant paradigm’ is the mode of the hip and aware.

  17. #17 WMB120
    March 21, 2010

    It’s really interesting to read this because I am VERY sarcastic and some people never seem to get my sarcasm. Like many people said before me, tone has a huge part in sarcasm. Sometimes i am being sarcastic and the tone of my voice does not convey that message so the person gets confused. People also try to be sarcastic through IM or text messaging and neither work because you can’t hear the tone of the persons voice to tell. It is interesting how the two parts of our brains work together in order to interpret sarcasm. I do think some sarcasm is in the words though and not the world. I use sarcasm when one of my friends says something stupid. Other people need to realize that sarcasm is a part of someone’s personality, and it just takes getting used to if you don’t like it.

  18. #18 Jordan
    August 21, 2010

    Though I wonder how much of a sarcastic tone is actually an intentionally NOT sarcastic tone…? For instance, when I say “What a GREAT day!” I may not necessarily say it with a disappointed tone — in fact, the more sarcastic I’m being, the LESS sarcastic my tone. Does the brain see this and then determine, based on given facts, whether or not my ‘real’ tone of voice is real or sarcastically real? For instance:

    “What a GREAT day!”
    The brain processes tone and content; Well, he seemed very cheerful, so he’s either serious or sarcastic. Which is more likely? Well, he said today was a good day, and I know it’s raining out. Most people don’t like rain, so I suspect he’s being sarcastic.

    This is like the poisoned drink paradox often explored in bad movies — if you take the cup offered to you, it might be poisoned. But, if you take the other cup, perhaps you were EXPECTED to take the other cup and THAT’s the one that’s poisoned?

    Either way, this is a GREAT discussion, and I say that sans sarcastic tone or sarcasm.

  19. #19 Bettina
    January 5, 2011

    Interesting article but sarcasm seems to be confused with irony. Sarcasm is intended to to be demeaning and may be processed a bit differently than irony.

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