04 June 2005

Where Your Sarcasm Comes From

Have you been sarcastic lately? Or is it the other way around---were you the victim of someone reeking with sarcasm? Do you know that not everyone understands what it is?

What is sarcasm?

Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. More definitions here. It is when your boss catches you sleeping and comments how hard you work. By experience, my definition of it revolves around hurting someone through subtle irony in order to expose some dreadful thing he/she has done.

prontal_cortexWeeks ago, Israeli researchers led by Dr. Shamay-Tsoory and her colleagues at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa and the University of Haifa published an article in the journal Neuropsychology ( the full study in Adobe file here) in which they claimed to have found the neuroanatomic basis of sarcasm.

So, what part of your brain handles sarcasm?

According to Dr. Shamay-Tsoory, it comes from the prefrontal cortex part of the brain. This is a part located immediately above and behind your eyes. Specifically, sarcasm may have its roots in the right ventromedial area of the inferior prefrontal cortex of the brain.

The researchers were able to show in their study people with right ventromedial area damage (either by trauma or some degenerative disease) are mostly "immune" to sarcasm and cannot discern any irony in what sarcastic people say.
The findings fit what we already know about brain anatomy.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in pragmatic language processes and complex social cognition, thus it followed that participants with prefrontal damage had faulty "sarcasm meters."

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.

The authors write, "Understanding sarcasm requires both the ability to understand the speaker’s belief about the listener's belief and the ability to identify emotions."

[APA Press Release]

So, the next time someone says something sarcastic to you, you'll know you have a healthy prefrontal cortex when you get the meaning right away.

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