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The anatomy of sarcasm: Researchers reveal how the brain handles this complex communication

WASHINGTON -- The ability to comprehend sarcasm depends upon a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills based in specific parts of the brain. Yeah, right, and I'm the Tooth Fairy. But it's true: New research details an "anatomy of sarcasm" that explains how the mind puts sharp-tongued words into context. The findings appear in the May issue of Neuropsychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The Israeli psychologists who conducted the research explain that for sarcasm to score, listeners must grasp the speaker's intentions in the context of the situation. This calls for sophisticated social thinking and "theory of mind," or whether we understand that everyone thinks different thoughts. As an example of what happens when "theory of mind" is limited or missing, autistic children have problems interpreting irony, the more general category of social communication into which sarcasm falls.

Simone Shamay-Tsoory, PhD, and colleagues at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and the University of Haifa, studied 25 participants with prefrontal-lobe damage, 16 participants with posterior-lobe damage and 17 healthy controls. All participants listened to brief recorded stories, some sarcastic, some neutral, that had been taped by actors reading in a corresponding manner. Here is an example of sarcasm: "Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard." Meaning: "You're a real slacker!" Here is a neutral example: "Joe came to work and immediately began to work. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard!" Meaning: "You're a hard worker!"

Following each story, researchers asked a factual question to check story comprehension and an attitude question to check comprehension of the speaker's true meaning: Did the manager believe Joe was working hard? When participants answered got the fac
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Contact: Pam Willenz
pwillenz@apa.org
American Psychological Association
22-May-2005


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