Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Science of Sarcasm (For Real)

Those who know me shouldn't be surprised that I perked up when this story came across my newsreader:

What you may not have realized is that perceiving sarcasm, the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite, requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking. Those who lose the ability, whether through a head injury or the frontotemporal dementias afflicting the patients in Dr. [Katherine] Rankin’s study, just do not get it when someone says during a hurricane, “Nice weather we’re having.”

Dr. Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, used an innovative test developed in 2002, the Awareness of Social Inference Test, or Tasit. It incorporates videotaped examples of exchanges in which a person’s words seem straightforward enough on paper, but are delivered in a sarcastic style so ridiculously obvious to the able-brained that they seem lifted from a sitcom.

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.
From a sociological point of view, this may seem more rooted in neurology than environment, but the fact that environmental factors in the TASIT were so instrumental in producing these findings suggests the power of the social situation in our cognitive processes.
So is it possible that Jon Stewart, who wields sarcasm like a machete on “The Daily Show,” has an unusually large right parahippocampal gyrus?

“His is probably just normal,” Dr. Rankin said. “The right parahippocampal gyrus is involved in detecting sarcasm, not being sarcastic.”

But, she quickly added, “I bet Jon Stewart has a huge right frontal lobe; that’s where the sense of humor is detected on M.R.I.”

They go on to note that Stewart had "no comment" on the study. Perfect, in other words.

No comments: