Newswise – The brain is more complex than we realize. For instance, theability to understand a sarcastic remark depends on asequence of complex skills based in specific parts of thebrain. Psychologists have discovered that in order to “getit,” listeners must understand the speaker’s real intentions(because even though the person using sarcasm says onething, he really means the opposite). This is one reason whyautistic children, although often extremely intelligent,don’t “get” sarcasm. Parents can attest that the immaturebrains of young children rarely comprehend it either.

In the May issue of Neuropsychology, Dr. SimoneShamay-Tsoory reports on a comparison of patients withprefrontal-lobe damage, patients with posterior-lobe damageand control subjects with healthy brains. The goal was tolearn which parts of the brain register understanding ofthis complex emotion. All participants listened to recordedstories, some sarcastic, some neutral, that were read byactors. One example of sarcasm: “Joe came to work, andinstead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His bossnoticed his behavior and said, ‘Joe, don’t work too hard.'”(The real meaning: “You’re a slacker”). One neutral example:”Joe came to work and immediately began to work. His bossnoticed his behavior and said, ‘Joe, don’t work too hard!'”(the real meaning: “You’re a hard worker.”)

Following each story, researchers asked the patientsquestions, in order to check their comprehension. Did themanager really believe Joe was working hard?

Patients with prefrontal brain damage had troublecomprehending sarcasm, while the people in the other twogroups had no such problems. People with damage in onespecific part of the brain had the most trouble withcomprehension. (An analogy to this is that it’s beendiscovered that the ability to read a clock face resides inone specific part of the brain. For more information onthis, click here forAnne Strieber’s latest Diary.

These findings fit what we already know about the brain. Theprefrontal cortex is involved in language processes andsocial cognition, which is why autistic children, in whomthis area is damaged, have trouble with both sarcasm andsocial interactions. The authors write, “Understandingsarcasm requires both the ability to understand thespeaker’s belief about the listener’s belief and the abilityto identify emotions.” In other words, comprehending sarcasmis much more complex than it seems.

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