Studies: Cynicism Starts Young and Sarcasm Is Complex

Finally, an area of the brain known as the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional context of the situation. Put it all together and you've grasped sarcasm. But not everyone always gets it.

The Israeli team traced this process by studying people who had lesions in each of these regions of the brain and then seeing which part of a sarcastic remark they had trouble interpreting.

"The frontal lobes act together with the right hemisphere that interprets emotions," said Shamay-Tsoory. "This is one example of how a brain lesion can impair important faculties in the brain."

Getting 'The Grass Is Always Greener'

Just as irony is lost on other animals (and some people with lesions or other neural disorders), so are metaphors. How, for example, do we grasp the meaning of "the grass is always greener" or a "rolling stone gathers no moss"?

Ramachandran at the University of California at San Diego found that we can thank a part of our brain called the left angular gyrus -- a region that is disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates.

Ramachandran studied patients with lesions in this region of the brain and found they had a very hard time explaining the meaning of 20 common metaphors.

One patient, a former physician, could maintain a normal conversation and even correct medical diagnoses but was flummoxed when asked to explain the meaning of "all that glitters is not gold."

His best guess, said Ramachandran, was that it meant you had to be very careful when buying jewelry because you might get robbed. While the patients could come up with literal meanings for such phrases, figurative meanings escaped them.

Studying how people are able to interpret metaphors may seem like an obscure topic of research, but just as tracing our capability to be cynical and sarcastic may shed light on human behavior, Ramachandran claims it's an important part of understanding "quintessentially human abilities."

"Eventually it will help us understand ourselves," he said, "and that's more important than anything else, isn't it?"

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