Being sarcastic? Talk to the right brain.

By • Published: August 23rd, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

What did you say, Einstein — you don’t know which part of the brain processes sarcasm? Oh, and your name is John, not Einstein? Sorry, your snarkometer must be a bit off. Don’t worry, just blame it on the right brain.

According to a new study in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, when it comes to comprehension of sarcastic speech and written text, the right part of the brain seems to do more heavy lifting than the left. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is more involved in understanding literal meaning.

Understanding sarcasm it vital to proper communication. It cues people whether to take a statement such as the seeming compliment, “you’re a fine friend,” literally, or in the opposite way, and respond appropriately.

Many studies have yielded a mass of results, some conflicting, about how different parts of the brain process figurative language. Conventional metaphors may be processed similarly in both parts of the brain, or slightly more in the left, research shows. But many findings point to the right brain as the processor of sarcasm.

Patients with right hemisphere damage are less accurate at detecting sarcasm than metaphors in speech. And they do less well at “getting” sarcasm than people who have left hemisphere damage or no brain damage at all. Sarcastic speech is also more accurately interpreted when it’s presented to the left ear, that is, the right hemisphere, than when presented to the right ear. Imaging studies also reveal that there is greater brain activity on the right when readers process sarcastic text than when they process literal text.

Sarcasm requires a special kind of interpretation involving understanding multiple meanings, and that’s perhaps why it’s processed differently. As it turns out, the right brain is good at activating different levels of meanings. Got that, Einstein?