There was nothing very interesting in Katherine P. Rankin’s study of sarcasm — at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus.A lot of people with Aspergers have the same problem. An Aspergic child told to "hop on the bus" by his teacher will often do just that. He's not trying to be a smart-Alec, he's just trying to conform and do what he's told. The consequent punishment just means he has less faith in cause and effect next time, as punishments and rewards appear to happen at random, with no discernible pattern.
What you may not have realized is that perceiving sarcasm, the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite, requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking. Those who lose the ability, whether through a head injury or the frontotemporal dementias afflicting the patients in Dr. Rankin’s study, just do not get it when someone says during a hurricane, “Nice weather we’re having.”
Been there, done that.
And one of the so far unexplained aspects of my transition is that my mild but persistent Aspie symptoms went away as part of it, and in days not months. I did get into the habit of taking people literally, and now sometimes go very serious when they're being sarcastic, just to get a rise out of them. The thing is, it's deliberate now.
To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.I always was an inveterate punster. So the capability was probably already there, just suppressed. Gosh I wish that I'd had a series of MRI scans during transition, it might have told us so much! Never mind, I'm sure that Internet Archaeologists in the future, when they know rather more about the Brain than we do now, will recognise the pattern should they read this blog. Just as today we can see that George III had porphyria.
“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.
The discovery fits with an increasingly nuanced view of the right hemisphere’s role, said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The left hemisphere does language in the narrow sense, understanding of individual words and sentences,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “But it’s now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere.”
After a presentation of her findings at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in April, Dr. Rankin was asked whether even those with intact brains might have differences in brain areas that explain how well they pick up on sarcasm.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses in our cognitive abilities, including our ability to detect social cues,” she said. “There may be volume-based differences in certain regions that explain variations in all sorts of cognitive abilities.”