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Anybody got any sarcasm?

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Detecting sarcasm relies upon the ability to monitor other peoples’ mental states, thoughts and feelings. Detecting sarcasm then is necessary for effective decision making and social cognition. A recent article in Neuropsychology offers findings regarding the neurobiology of comprehension of sarcasm and the cognitive processes underlying it.


“The authors explored the neurobiology of sarcasm and the cognitive processes underlying it by examining the performance of participants with focal lesions on tasks that required understanding of sarcasm and social cognition. Participants with prefrontal damage (n 25) showed impaired performance on the sarcasm task, whereas participants with posterior damage (n 16) and healthy controls (n 17) performed the same task without difficulty. Within the prefrontal group, right ventromedial lesions were associated with the most profound deficit in comprehending sarcasm. In addition, although the prefrontal damage was associated with deficits in theory of mind and right hemisphere damage was associated with deficits in identifying emotions, these 2 abilities were related to the ability to understand sarcasm. This suggests that the right frontal lobe mediates understanding of sarcasm by integrating affective processing with perspective taking.”


“Irony is an indirect form of speech used to convey feelings in an indirect way. Ironic utterances are characterized by opposition between the literal meaning of the sentence and the speaker’s meaning (Winner, 1988). One form of irony is sarcasm. Sarcasm is usually used to communicate implicit criticism about the listener or the situation. It is usually used in situations provoking negative affect and is accompanied by disapproval, contempt, and scorn (Sperber & Wilson, 1986). The listener must identify the opposition between the literal meaning of this sentence (Joe is working too hard) and the boss’ intention to criticize Joe (Joe is a lazy worker). The ironic speaker intends that the listener detect the deliberate falseness; he makes a statement that violates the context and intends the listener to recognize this statement (Dennis, Purvis, Barnes, Wilkinson, & Winner, 2001). The interpretation of sarcasm thus involves understanding of the intentions expressed in the situation and may include processes of social cognition and theory of mind.”


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