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Recognizing Sarcasm

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

Israeli neuropsychologists report in the May 2005 issue of the journal Neuropsychology that they have identified the parts of the brain which enable people to recognize sarcasm. A good summary of the paper is presented here. The research team was able to show that people with damage to the prefrontal area of the brain cannot recognize sarcasm when it is presented to them (in the form of the phrase “Don’t work too hard” spoken by a boss to a resting worker). The brain damaged subjects missed the important non-literal aspect of this communication but did understand its’ literal meaning. No other subjects in the study (some with normal brains, some with damage in the backs of their brains) had any trouble recognizing the sarcasm. The finding is interpreted in the context of what is already known about how the brain processes language. Areas of the brain that comprehend the literal meaning of speech are located on the left side. Areas within the frontal lobe and right brain hemisphere are responsible for comprehending emotional and social meaning. These multiple streams of analysis are thought to come together in the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex (again – up front, just behind the forehead) where they are integrated. Damage to the frontal area makes it difficult or impossible to recognize the emotional content of speech, and to integrate emotional and social information with the literal meaning of the communication.

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