A study in May's Neuropsychology (Vol. 19, No. 2) finds the right prefrontal cortex--a brain region associated with social cognition and identifying emotions--helps us understand sarcasm.
Authors Simone Shamay-Tsoory, PhD, and Rachel Tomer, PhD, of the University of Haifa, and Judith Aharon-Peretz, PhD, of Israel's Rambam Medical Center, hypothesized that the right frontal cortex regulates understanding sarcasm since the right hemisphere concerns emotional processing and the prefrontal cortex deals with social cognition.
They tested 25 participants with lesions in the prefrontal cortex, 16 with lesions in the posterior cortex and 17 healthy controls with no lesions on their ability to understand sarcastic remarks. Participants listened to researchers say 16 remarks--eight lines presented both sarcastically and literally. For example, in a sarcastic situation, Joe arrived at work and immediately slacked off. His boss sarcastically said, "Joe, don't work too hard!" In its neutral counterpart, Joe arrived and immediately began working. His boss seriously said, "Joe, don't work too hard!"
After each story, researchers asked participants a factual question--did Joe work hard?--and an attitude question--did the boss believe Joe worked hard?--to assess if participants comprehended the speaker's true meaning.
Researchers then read stories about a faux pas to participants to test their ability to exhibit empathy and infer another's thoughts. In one example, two boys in a school bathroom talk badly about another boy who suddenly emerges from a stall where, unbeknownst to them, he was listening.
Researchers then asked participants questions such as: Did someone say something they shouldn't have? Why shouldn't they have said it? Why did they say it?
Participants with prefrontal cortex damage made more errors in identifying sarcasm and empathy than the other two groups. Yet within that group, participants with right prefrontal cortex damage made more errors than those with damage in both cortexes or only the left cortex.
The results shed light on how the brain's neurobiology underlies the behavioral problems of patients with cortex damage.
"These findings contribute to our understanding of the link between language and social cognition," Shamay-Tsoory says, noting that this finding can help people with damage to this part of the brain understand social context by focusing on language comprehension.
Perhaps most surprising, the authors note, is the tight relationship among our abilities to understand sarcasm, empathy and other people's thoughts.
"To detect sarcasm, irony and jokes, and to better understand what people mean when they talk, we must have empathy," Shamay-Tsoory says.