Studies: Cynicism Starts Young and Sarcasm Is Complex

Are you the cynical, sarcastic type? Scientists are on to you.

A recent series of studies has gone beyond asking basic questions about the brain, such as how we speak or tell our limbs to move, and is probing more complex areas of cognition. Some researchers now want to know how we understand metaphors, why we "get" sarcasm (or don't), and how soon we become cynical.

A healthy cynic might ask, why spend the time and money to understand all these things in the first place? Besides shedding light on certain diseases, researchers claim it's necessary to understand all functions of the brain -- basic and obscure -- to get a full sense of how our minds work.

"Even though linguists may not study these things, they make up a large part of what it means to be human," said V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego.

Among the traits thought to be uniquely human is our capacity to be cynical.

8 Years Old and Wise to the World

Candice Mills, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University, recently surveyed Connecticut schoolchildren ages 6 to 12 to find out how early they learned to process information with a grain of salt.

"We tend to think of children as being extremely gullible -- that they believe everything they hear," said Mills who recently earned her doctorate at Yale. "We wanted to see how true that was."

True to predictions, children younger than 8 years old in the survey proved to be fairly gullible. But, to their surprise, 8- to 12-year-olds turned out to be a very cynical bunch.

When told stories about competitors running or swimming in a close race and then saying they had won, the children were asked if they thought the characters were lying. Those between 8 and 12 years old doubted the competitors had actually won the race. What's more, when asked why characters might say they had won if they hadn't, the children didn't cut the characters any slack -- they said the characters were flat-out lying.

"Adults may explain it by saying a person wanted to win so much they skewed the way they saw the outcome, children don't talk about bias," said Mills. "They think about people as either lying or telling the truth. It's more black and white and, in some ways, a harsher way of thinking."

Mills says the information is useful, particularly in U.S. society where children can be inundated with all kinds of information from television, friends and movies.

"Given that children are exposed to so much, it's good to know when they may be more cynical," she said, pointing out that the study demonstrates how cynicism a key part of human behavior.

Tracing Sarcasm -- An Easy Process (Yeah, Right)

Another researcher, Simone Shamay-Tsoory, sees sarcasm as a uniquely human form of expression and her research has shown that processing irony requires a complex network of brain processing.

For example, to grasp the fact that a person may not really mean it when he says, "Don't work too hard!" to someone who is sleeping at his desk, Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues at the University of Haifa in Israel, showed that we use an involved series of neural networks.

The process goes something like this: First, language processors in the left side of the brain interpret the literal meaning of the phrase, then the frontal lobes and right hemisphere of the brain interpret the intentional, social and emotional context of the situation.

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