Scientists locate sarcasm in the brain

May 23, 2005 at 3:59 PM
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HAIFA, Israel, May 23 (UPI) -- Israeli psychologists say one's ability to comprehend sarcasm depends upon a sequence of complex cognitive skills based in specific parts of the brain.

The researchers said in order for listeners to comprehend caustic remarks, they must be able to infer the speaker's intentions in the context of the situation. That, they said, calls for sophisticated social thinking and "theory of mind," or the knowledge that everyone thinks different thoughts.

For example, autistic children with a limited or missing "theory of mind," have trouble understanding irony, of which sarcasm is a form.

The team -- from the University of Haifa and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa -- studied 25 participants with prefrontal-lobe damage, 16 participants with posterior-lobe damage and 17 healthy subjects for control. All participants listened to brief recorded stories, some sarcastic and some neutral, taped by actors reading in a corresponding manner.

Participants with prefrontal damage were found to be impaired in comprehending sarcasm, while the other two groups had no such problem. The prefrontal group, which involved people suffering from damage in the right ventromedial area of their brain, had the most profound problems in comprehending sarcasm.

The study is detailed in the May issue of Neuropsychology

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