Too much sarcasm is bad

Neurology: why not everyone understands irony

Irony is a particularly fine stylistic device in literature and art. The creator of the work wants to draw attention to a given fact in a humorous way, and the recipient should perceive it with a certain smile or laugh on their lips.

Irony does not always achieve the purpose of entertainment. The angry protests of the Muslims after the Mohammed cartoons are impressive proof of this. Irony can be misunderstood. How does this happen? Which mechanisms are set in motion in the brain?

The linguist and philosopher Nicola Spotorno from the CNRS Institute in Paris addressed this question in a study. “One could assume that if someone has mastered the meanings of the words and the grammatical rules of a language, they would understand every sentence. But that's not the case. ”Irony is an example of how what is said and what is meant diverge.

Irony can only be understood by those who have empathy

When a football player says to his teammate after a lost match: “Today we combined really well”, the listener knows that the statement is not meant seriously. In reality, the speaker is trying to express his discomfort with the team’s performance.

Linguists understand the phenomenon to be an "indirect expressive speech act". "The irony reveals that linguistic rules are not enough to understand an utterance," says Spotorno. You have to grasp the semantics of the sentence.

And that is only possible with empathy. The theory of mind (ToM), also known as mentalization, provides the psychological explanation for this complex communication process. According to the definition of the psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, it describes the "ability to interpret one's own behavior or the behavior of other people by attributing mental states". Emotional components play an important role in this. But how can this concept be measured in practice?

Short stories in the MRT

For their investigation, the researchers used a magnetic resonance tomograph (MRI). The method allows brain regions to be visualized that are activated when the test subjects act.

A methodological problem is that the test participants in the narrow scanner tube usually have other, sometimes banal, thoughts in their heads and it is difficult to isolate the cognitive processes. “That's why we confronted the subjects with a series of short stories to draw their attention to the content,” says Sportorno. In every story, one sentence was meant ironically.

The analysis showed that different regions of the brain were involved in deciphering the linguistic code