The science of sarcasm |

The science of sarcasm

Barry Smith

Just when I’m ready to give up on science, with its goggles and lab coats and Bunsen burners and high falootin’ theories and stuff, it goes and does something useful.According to a study published in the May issue of Neuropsychology, an Israeli research team has isolated the part of the brain responsible for comprehending sarcasm.Neuropsychology is one of my absolute favorite publications. I’ve been a subscriber for years. They have the best cartoons.That was sarcasm.Actually a friend emailed me the story. At first I thought it was so I could write a column, like this one, but now I’m having second thoughts. Maybe it was done in the same spirit that you’d email a news story about promising breakthroughs in the treatment of alcoholism to your friend who … ahem … might find it interesting.Thanks a lot, dude. Very subtle. (Sarcasm)According to the story, University of Haifa researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory used groups of three kinds of people for her study; those with damage to their prefrontal brain lobes, those with damage to their posterior lobes and those whose lobes were just fine. One of the tests included subjecting them to recorded examples of scripted sarcasm performed by actors, like saying “don’t work too hard” to people who were obviously working REALLY hard, like road construction crews.Oops. Sorry.According to Shamay-Tsoory, the prefrontal lobe-damaged people didn’t fare so well in picking up on the ‘casm. Specifically those with damage to the cranial neighborhood known as the “ventromedial area.”This isolation was made even easier due to the fact that these people were the only ones who didn’t comment to Shamay-Tsoory, at some point during the study, “Nice name.”So, it’s all happening in the ventromedial area, eh? Interesting. Apparently this part of the brain is a small bit of the prefrontal lobe, located basically right behind the eyes.And you know what this means, right? Yep. It means we can poke at it. By “we” I mean we, the average citizen, can poke at it, without the burden of some expensive “procedure” performed by a “surgeon” who wasted a bunch of time in, ha, “medical school.” Nope, all we need is a cocktail fork – and a few cocktails – and a-poking we may go.Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Barry, don’t you think brain-poking is better left to those with more training and better sedatives?”Well, my answer is simple, yet it explains it all: “Yeah, right.”See?My friend who sent me this article was right. I’ve got a problem, and thanks to science I can now take matters into my own hands before I have to suffer through yet another humiliating intervention:INTERVENTION LEADER: Barry, you’re probably wondering why we’re all gathered here. It’s to discuss your problem.ME: My problem? Oh, you mean your face?LEADER: No, that’s the Immaturity Intervention. That’s scheduled for 3:30, right after Hygiene. We’re here about the Sarcasm.ME: Great. I’m REALLY excited.Now, this Shamay-Tsoory study says nothing about where sarcasm COMES from, only where it lands. But I think it’s fair to suspect that little bastard ventromedial area has something to do with it. And if not, I’ll bet it knows who does. And I bet it will quickly give up this information when threatened with a cocktail fork, especially if there’s still a piece of shrimp on the end of it.I hope so, because I’m excited by the promise of a life of sincerity and earnestness. Sarcasm really is the lowest form of wit. It’s cutting and mean and manipulative, and I am so ready to rid myself of it once and for all and move on to what’s next.Yeah, right. VT– Barry Smith, an Aspen-based freelance writer, moves his lips while writing this column, and hopes you do the same while reading it. E-mail him at or visit his Web page at

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