Lessons from sarcasm (so useful…)

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?

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from sarcasm (so useful…)

  1. As an Australian and frequent user of sarcasm (yeah, right!), I found your comments about Australian humour interesting. I’ve often wondered what it is about ‘American’ parody that makes it so damned obvious. I experience a loss of pleasure in the joke when it’s made too obvious but I hadn’t reflected on my own preference for ‘unresolved’, ‘ambivalent’ parody. True enough, though, the pleasure I experience arises because I bring something to the humour. To ‘get’ a joke is an act, not just a reception of a message. This is extended in banter, where the goal is not simply to understand the joke but to throw back further ironic elaborations. You indicate you’ve got the joke not by laughing, which punctuates the joke and brings it to an end, but by extending the humour and delaying resolution. Actually, the term ‘joke’ isn’t really adequate because it suggests a bounded entity with an obvious punch-line and conclusion. Some people expect humour to be contained in ‘jokes’ – discreet packages of humour. In the ‘Australian’, laconic, mode, the ‘joke’ isn’t so easily separated from regular discourse. Instead, there’s an ironic edge given to normal conversation which is probably the source of the ambivalence you’re referring to, Greg.

    I come up against this constantly with my (German) wife: I make an ironic comment and expect her to return an ironic elaboration. The ‘joke’ mostly falls flat though. Often she doesn’t realise that what I said was ironically intended. I often feel like I’ve thrown her a ball, but instead of catching it and throwing it back to me with a slightly different ‘spin’, she lets it drop to the floor and looks down at it with disdain. I would hesitate to generalise this out to a national trait though, although it does seem to fit the stereotype of the ‘humourless’ German. I have had plenty of German friends with a healthy sense of irony and who could banter with the best of them. But it is interesting, isn’t it, that it is in the moments of failed humour that the foreignness of others becomes more palpable and we are ‘struck’ by difference.

  2. I think that just like context is an important factor for sarcasm, it is important for understanding jokes.

    When Brazilian comedy is shown on Portuguese tv (I might say I am in part Brazilian and I am currently living in Portugal), most of my friends don’t get the reason why I laugh 3 or 4 times more than they do. It’s a matter of context. If one doesn’t know the context where the joke was made, his right hemisphere will never grasp its plenitude.

    By the other hand, until “My Family”, I never thought Brittish sitcoms funny. The thing is Ben Harper, the main character, is one of the most sarctastic people in the world. House, MD: he is not nice, he is not funny, but we laugh with him: he is sarcastic!

    A 14 year old friend once told me the difference between classic and modern funny: the classic ones did something silly and said a joke, the modern ones are sarcastic and ironic. Maybe because we, nowadays, tend to valorize (even implicitly) “intelligence”…

    Let me tell you that I’ve been reading this blog for a while and I am enjoying to read my first anthropologist. Thank you 🙂

  3. I’ve read Hurley’s article and am also curious how culture can play a role in shaping a sarcastic sense of humor. I am American and my son and I have difficulty discerning sarcasm. We simply don’t get it. Neither one of us have dementia or brain injuries. My daughter has a very sarcastic sense of humor. I am wondering if there is a “sarcasm gene” that my son and I are missing?

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