The highest form of intelligence

Oscar Wilde once said that "sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence," and he's got a point. Comprehending sarcasm actually consists of many processes in the brain. Expressing sarcasm also involves many things. 

A lot of people dismiss sarcasm as deceptive but it really isn't. We usually want people to detect our sarcasm so we speak a little differently to indicate that we're joking. 

Tone of voice is usually a strong indication of sarcasm. According to HowStuffWorks, we often use a nasal tone when speaking sarcastically, linking sarcasm to disgust. Another thing we use is called inverse pitch obtrusion. In other words, we stress a certain word at a lower pitch. 

The article uses a statement about weather as an example of this. The stress on the word "great" varies depending on whether the speaker is being sarcastic or sincere:

Pitch: High
Great weather, huh?

Pitch: Low
Great weather, huh?

Other indications of sarcasm include elongating words and saying words associated with excitement in a flat tone.  Facial expressions also play a part in conveying sarcasm. This is why sarcasm is often difficult to detect in text. Text cannot convey tone and must rely only on context. 

Despite context as well as audio and visual clues, many people cannot understand sarcasm. 
Damage to certain parts of the brain can even render someone unable to recognize sarcastic statements. 


In 2005, scientists discovered parts of the brain said to detect sarcastic speech

The study consisted of 25 people with prefrontal lobe damage, 16 with posterior lobe damage and 17 without brain damage. They all watched recorded sarcastic and neutral scenarios. The sarcastic scene involved a worker, Joe, arriving to work late and napping on the job. His boss sees him and says, " Don't work too hard." In the neutral example, Joe arrived early and began working right away. His boss tells him the same thing as in the sarcastic example. Tone and situation were different in each scenarios yet the participants with prefrontal lobe damage were unable to distinguish the sarcastic from literal.

FrontalLobe2.jpgHow does a normal person understand speech as sarcastic?

  • Language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain interpret the literal meaning
  • The frontal lobes and right hemisphere process the social/emotional context
  • The right ventromedial prefrontal cortex then links the literal words with the context. If the statement is sarcastic, this is where the brain will recognize the disconnect between the two and identify the comment as sarcasm.
Autistic people can also have trouble with understanding sarcasm because they struggle to connect context, intention and language. They interpret speech literally. Not being able to understand overt sarcasm can even be a sign of dementia. University of California, San Francisco mapped brains with MRI machines and found that deterioration in certain parts of the brains corresponded with an inability to detect lies (or sarcasm). This finding could help doctors diagnose dementia earlier so the patient could receive treatment sooner. 

And now on a bit of a lighter note:


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