Multiple sarcasm

If you’re going to be sarcastic, make sure you do it with the full force of knowledge behind you, because there’s nothing that’ll make you look more ridiculous than being sarcastic and wrong.

Unfortunately, an otherwise interesting article from The New York Times manages to tick both boxes. The fact that the article is on the neuroscience of sarcasm makes it all the more ironic, but we all know that irony is an entirely different ball game.

Despite what the opening paragraph of the article tells you, neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin’s study did not find that sarcasm “resides” in the right parahippocampal gyrus – a part of the temporal lobe that lies just below the hippocampus.

Her study, which was presented to a recent neurology conference, tested a series of 78 patients with various forms of dementia and 13 healthy older adults, with the TASIT – a test that measures the ability to discriminate between sarcastic and sincere statements.

The research team then used MRI scans to take structural images of each of the participants’ brains and looked to see whether atrophy (brain area shrinkage caused by cell death) was linked to poorer sarcasm detection.

As they mention in their presentation abstract: “Poorer sarcasm recognition correlated with right temporal lobe atrophy (anterior fusiform and parahippocampal gyrii, superior temporal sulcus), and atrophy to the right superior frontal gyrus and striatal structures (right caudate and left globus pallidus)”.

For those not familiar with the geography of the brain, this is a fairly distributed area, affecting the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and basal ganglia, largely on the right side.

Contrary to what the article tells you, it’s very unlikely that Dr Rankin was surprised by the fact that the brain areas linked to sarcasm were on the right, rather than the left dominant hemisphere for language.

In fact, not only has right hemisphere damage been known to impair the recognition of emotion in speech for almost 30 years, but in her own abstract Rankin mentions that the finding is consistent with existing research on voice prosody, facial emotion recognition and perspective taking.

Finally, to say that sarcasm “resides” in one particular place in the brain from a study like this is just daft. It’s like concluding fun “resides” in a particular area of the city because you’ve noticed that the population enjoyed themselves less after the cinema burnt down.

Dr Rankin’s study has not yet been published, so the full details aren’t available. However, from the abstract it looks like an excellent study on the cognitive neuroscience of sarcasm which will make a great contribution to the growing literature (including another study presented at the same conference).

I just wouldn’t go by the NYT piece to pick up on the details, although it does have a good demonstration clip from the TASIT.

Link to NYT on sarcasm.
Link to abstract of scientific study.

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