The Science of Sarcasm

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A new study aimed at confirming the region of the brain that is important in detecting sarcasm may open the door for new diagnostic tools in detecting mental illness, according to an article in The New York Times.

Study leader Katherine P. Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology and a language test to highlight the region of the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides.

The findings, which were presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting, showed that the 'sarcasm center' is located in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

So, why is this research important?

The ability to perceive sarcasm is linked to one of the most important aspects of human social relations: the ability to figure out what others are thinking. This ability to detect sarcasm is characteristically lost very early during the course of frontotemporal dementia. To date, early detection of this type of dementia has been difficult because afflicted individuals can still perform perfectly well on traditional neuropsychological tests early on in their disease. Therefore, studies like this could help neurologists develop new tools to diagnose and track the early stages of this illness.

During the study, researchers used linguistic cues to localize the sarcasm detection region to the right hemisphere. This is interesting because the brain's language and social interaction centers were previously thought to be located on the left side while the right was known to specialize in a visual context.

This led researchers to propose new functions for the right side of the brain. "It's now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere," said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

This current study corroborates previous findings suggesting that the front and right regions of the brain work together to comprehend sarcasm.

Read other ScienceBloggers' take on this study at "Of Two Minds" and "Pure Pedantry"

Image from Matt Curtis

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"Oh, a sarcasm detector. What a tremendously useful invention." -- Comic Book Guy, on The Simpsons

By El Christador (not verified) on 04 Jun 2008 #permalink

Very interesting post

By M. Abrantes (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Brains and Beauty - you'll go far.....

By Sean Crowley (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

I wonder why the researchers go for the "sarcasm points" of brain. In other words, what was their motivation; why sarcasm rather than irony? Or say, why not detecting skeptic resides? I suspect they are all recognized by the same spot. (great.. now officially announce skepticism as a mental disease, we suffer from it though, don't we now?) :)

By Betul Kacar (not verified) on 21 Jun 2008 #permalink