The New York Times ran a story on brain imaging studies of sarcasm, The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care), by Dan Hurley. That’s right — that favourite rhetorical tool of the snarky adolescent has been subjected to brain imaging studies. The Pearson Assessment video — of an actor delivering the same lines twice, once sincerely, and once dripping sarcasm — is fun. I found myself thinking that I could have been MORE sarcastic.
Hurley, the author of the NYTimes article, does a pretty good job of explaining things, although I think that the idea that perceiving sarcasm requires a ‘theory of mind,’ alluded to in the article, is a bit of a problem — but I have that issue with a lot of the ‘theory of mind’ material because I think it ‘over-cognizes’ social perception (that’s my own issue, so I won’t dwell on it). Hurley discusses the research of Katherine P. Rankin, using MRI scans and the Awareness of Social Inference Test, or Tasit. I have looked on the website for the Memory and Aging Center of UCSF, and through PubMed and EurekAlert, but I can’t find the original report on this research (please post a comment if you know where it is).
“I was testing people’s ability to detect sarcasm based entirely on paralinguistic cues, the manner of expression,” Dr. Rankin said. What seems particularly interesting is that the part of the brain which seemed to be linked to sarcasm — damage to it by dementia impeded the ability to recognize sarcasm — was in the right hemisphere, not usually associated with language or social interaction (which are generally associated with the left hemisphere). Instead, sarcasm seemed to require activity in ‘a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.’
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania (who I think was not part of the original research team), explained to Hurley that, ‘The left hemisphere does language in the narrow sense, understanding of individual words and sentences. But it’s now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere.’
The research seems to support earlier work that suggests perceiving sarcasm, like so many mental abilities, requires a network of brain regions, and disruption of one can throw off the whole ability. See, for example, The anatomy of sarcasm: Researchers reveal how the brain handles this complex communication, a notice of an article by a research team at the University of Haifa that appeared in Neuropsychology in 2005.
What I’m struck by as an anthropologist though is that the perception of sarcasm is actually pretty subtle and can vary across cultures. I’ve noticed, for example, that Australian humour seems to include a lot more of what I would call ‘ambivalent’ or ‘unresolved’ parody; what I mean is that, in American parody (which I’m more accustomed to), there seems to be a very clear framing of something as ironic or sarcastic. In contrast, it’s much less clear in Australia. Movies and television, for example, seem to feature a lot more gentle sarcasm and parody, with the polyvalence of the interpretation left open; someone can be both a rube and a hero, a kind of characteristic that I don’t commonly see in American humour.
In contrast, I found Brazilian humour, especially television humour, pretty over the top when I was there. Television satire was so slapstick and ludicrously stereotypic that it was almost hard to find it very funny; some popular shows were utterly incomprehensible to me, not because I couldn’t understand them but because I just could NOT comprehend why someone would voluntarily watch them for any extended period.
I’m just wondering aloud if there might be a difference in the sensitivity of the ‘sarcasm’ network depending on one’s humour enculturation. Would the research at both Haifa and UCSF provide a possibility of comparative work?