Sarcasm: Lowest Form of Wit, Sincere Form of Science

Neuroscience Explained

Image: Bob Prosser, Creative Commons.

Humans are a fickle bunch. We are preoccupied with extending our curiosity space-wards in search of extra-terrestrial life, and yet often we don’t even understand each other. A slight shift in the arrangement of our facial muscles or a miniscule tweaking of our vocal chords can confusingly give a phrase a completely different meaning, and at times leave you suddenly feeling as if you’re not quite fluent in ‘human’ after all. You don’t need to place yourself in the shoes of any visiting alien in order to appreciate how confusing humans are: every day we baffle each other.

Sarcasm is the use of irony specifically to mock or display contempt for something, and is just one of the many examples where we say one thing while fully intending the exact opposite. As far as we know it’s found in all cultures, though its frequency of use and how insulting it is perceived to be varies. Amongst the English-speaking population it certainly seems popular. A University of California study in 2000, analysing 62 ten-minute recordings of English language conversations between college students and their friends, found that 8% of the total conversation involved ironic language, 28% of which was identified as sarcasm. From the results of this study it is suggested that on average irony occurs in conversation roughly every 2 minutes, and is also more prevalent between friends than strangers.

Originating from the Greek ‘to tear flesh’ sarcasm has the power to divide us: some of us are artful connoisseurs, some – including Oscar Wilde and my mother – fall into the ‘lowest-form-of-wit’* camp where we ‘get’ it but just don’t find it funny, and then there are those of us who cannot fathom it at all. Autism, schizophrenia, dementia and traumatic brain injury are just a few conditions whose effects often include an impaired ability to interpret non-literal meaning in language. Considering the frequency of conversational sarcasm (and the fact that even those of us who ‘get’ it still don’t always ‘get’ it) it’s not hard to appreciate that for individuals with these conditions, everyday conversation might feel like navigating an alien language.

The neuroscience behind sarcasm is largely inconclusive. As is often the case with such subjective concepts and the brain, we just don’t know enough yet to make conclusions. A 2012 review of 38 neuroimaging studies on non-literal language (8 of which focussed on irony) identified a total of 409 different active brain areas when encountering this type of language, of which 68% were in the left hemisphere of the brain. While it’s fairly certain that areas of the left brain, including a region known as the Brodmann area, are heavily involved; there is still much debate and contradictory results concerning how much these areas network with right brain regions in order to interpret language such as sarcasm. However, despite this lack of conclusion, we do know that we are able to pick up on sarcasm thanks to certain cues, which we unconsciously ‘look’ for in the behaviour of others when we’re interacting with them. These include facial expression, tone of voice (paralinguistic cues) and also the context of what’s being said. At around age 5 or 6 our brains are generally developed enough that we are able to recognise sarcasm from paralinguistic cues, with the ability to distinguish contextual cues emerging slightly later on in childhood. Interestingly, paralinguistic cues for sarcasm differ between cultures, for example in English sarcasm is usually sign-posted by a lowering of vocal pitch compared to the previous spoken phrase. However, your most cutting sarcastic English tone would probably be ineffectual, or at least a bit confusing, in Cantonese, where the opposite – an increase in pitch – often signifies sarcasm.

Image: Dan Iggers, Creative Commons

But why bother? The invention of sarcasm, like the hashtag, must have taken a while to become accepted before spreading like wildfire, making us the oh-so-ironic generation that we are today. Imagine the scenario: you’re out hunting with a bunch of ancestor friends, spy something tasty and proceed to chuck sharpened sticks, rocks and other weapons-of-choice at it. Unfortunately, you don’t have the best aim of the group and completely miss the target.

‘Nice shot,’ says one of your exasperated friends (paraphrasing here, of course). Undoubtedly, there would have been a pause and a bit of head-scratching at this as your fortunate prey gallops off into the horizon to live another day. Clearly it wasn’t a good shot. But perhaps the slightly sharper ones of the group might have noticed that your friend’s voice corresponded to the sort of tone they’ve heard for comments like ‘you’re rubbish at keeping a look out for lions – you may as well be blind’. Maybe they’d start to laugh – nervously at first, after all sarcasm has only just been invented, so no one has a clue quite where this is going. Maybe they’d knowingly catch each other’s eye, somehow aware that the joke is on you (or at least hoping they’ve got that right), and as this happened perhaps they’d bond and feel a little closer, while you and the other head-scratchers feel a little further away, almost like you’ve missed something…

And the situation hasn’t really changed today. We are a species defined by social interaction, which has only become richer as we evolve. Sarcasm is a way of subtly sounding out our equals in terms of intelligence, humour, emotional perception and perhaps also in terms of how well-connected areas of our brains are. Several studies have suggested that it takes the brain longer to process and successfully interpret written statements that are intended to be sarcastic, compared to ones that are simply intended literally. This suggests that picking up sarcasm requires broader neural networks to interpret social intention, not just simply understanding a statement. In addition, sarcasm is potentially a method of softening or veiling an insult: two people can chuckle conspiratorially when ‘you’re so modest’ goes over the third unsuspecting person’s head without them being offended; whereas a blunt ‘you’re an arrogant moron’ probably wouldn’t go down so well.

So it seems having an impaired ability to perceive sarcasm could put you at a social disadvantage, and leave you open to ridicule. This could make life difficult, particularly as some people use sarcasm so much it may as well be their second language. Unfortunately sarcasm doesn’t come with subtitles – or at least not until recently. Computer scientists have designed algorithms capable of detecting written sarcasm with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Written sarcasm, with its absence of vocal cues, is much easier to miss as it has to be inferred from context alone.  For evidence of this, see whichever painfully misconstrued celebrity has fallen out of the Twitter nest recently thanks to improperly-wielded sarcasm. Testing their algorithm with Amazon product reviews, scientists have trained computers to correctly recognise 78% of sarcastic Amazon reviews and 83% of sarcastic tweets on Twitter.

Attempts so far to introduce some form of sarcasm signposting (from the ‘SarcMark’ to ‘#sarcasm’) so far have been shunned by sarcasm buffs as a cringe-worthy violation and the height of missing-the-point. We may laugh at those who just don’t get it and think them slow but, whatever your opinion – noble art or language of the snobbish – it’s perhaps worth being sincere for a moment and remembering that to some it really is another language, and that technology like this could really make a difference. And on that note, all that’s left for me to do is to sign off this post in witty style with a wildly unpredictable sarcastic comment.

*Interestingly, ‘sarcasm is the lowest form of wit’ is widely attributed to Oscar Wilde but scholars have never found any conclusive proof that he ever expressed this. Just goes to show, you can always trust the Internet.

For more on sarcasm, check out this recent New Scientist article: ‘Isn’t it ironic? The value of sarcasm.’
Gibbs (2000) ‘Irony in talk among friends.’ Metaphor and Symbol 15 (5-27)
Rapp et al. (2012) ‘Where in the brain is non-literal language?’ NeuroImage 63:1 (600-610)
Tarbox et al. (2013) ‘Teaching children with autism to detect and respond to sarcasm.’ Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7:1 (193-198)