+ Sarcasm in the Brain

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adapted from Dan Hurley’s article in the NY Times:

Yeah, right.

Sarcasm, according to Hurley’s nifty definition is “the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite.”

Perceiving sarcasm requires a deft mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking.  Katherine P Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California in San Francisco, found the place in the brain where the ability to detect it resides.

Rankin used an innovative test developed in 2002, the Awareness of Social Inference Test (Tasit). The Tasit 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 sit-com.

“I was testing people’s ability to detect sarcasm based entirely on paralinguistic cues, the manner of expression,” she said.

Example:  A man walks into a room, in one of the taped exchanges, and tells a colleague named Ruth that he can’t take over a class of hers.  “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she replies in a tone of voice usually reserved for talking to toddlers.  “I know you’re busy — it probably wasn’t fair to expect you to squeeze it in.”  Her lip is curled in derision.

Although people with mild Alzheimer’s disease perceived the sarcasm, it went over the heads of many of those with “semantic dementia,” a progressive brain disease in which people forget words and their meanings.

Dr Rankin says, “You would think that because they lose language, they would pay close attention to the paralinguistic elements of the communication.”

But to her surprise, MRI scans  revealed that the part of the  brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere, 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.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” she says.

According to Dr Anjan Chatterjee, of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, this discovery fits with an increasingly nuanced view of the right hemisphere’s role.  “The left hemisphere does language in the narrow sense, understanding of individual words and sentences,” he says.  “But it’s now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere.”

According to Dr Bradley F Boeve of the Mayo Clinic, beyond the curiosity factor of mapping the cognitive tasks of the brain’s ridges and furrows, the study offers hope that a test like Tasit could help in the diagnosis of frontotemporal demential.

“These people normally do perfectly well on traditional neuropsychological tests early in the course of their disease.  The family will say the person has changed dramatically, but even neurologists will often just shrug them off as having a midlife crisis.”

Dr Rankin was asked whether even those with intact brains might have differences in brain areas that explain how well they pick up on sarcasm.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses in our cognitive abilities,” she said.  “There may be volume-based differences in certain regions that explain variations in all sorts of cognitive abilities.”

source: Dan Hurley’s article in Science Times on 6/3/08.  www.nytimes.com

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