Sarcasm, as they say, is the ability to insult stupid people without them realizing it. In some cases, sarcasm is a means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others or insecurity about oneself, as Psychology Today puts it. In other cases, it’s more of a secret shield from all the moronic buffoons in the world–a sort of a “true lie” that listeners won’t always comprehend as being insincere.
It’s a private joke that can save you from annoying and aggravating situations, providing a respite in humor even in the crappiest circumstances. So are sarcastic people just certified smart asses, or are we more intelligent (at least on an emotional level) than non-sarcastic people?
A university investigation shows that the ability to understand sarcasm depends on a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills in specific parts of the brain. Dr Shamay-Tsoory, a psychologist at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa and the University of Haifa, said: “Sarcasm is related to our ability to understand other people’s mental state. It’s not just a linguistic form, it’s also related to social cognition.”
Her research revealed that areas of the brain that decipher sarcasm and irony also process language, recognize emotions and help us understand social cues. Dr Shamay-Tsoory further explained that “understanding other people’s state of mind and emotions is related to our ability to understand sarcasm.”
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. There is actually a three-stage neural pathway in our brains that enables us to understand irony.
First the language center in the brain’s left hemisphere interprets the literal meaning of words. Next, the frontal lobes and right hemisphere process the speaker’s intention and check for contradictions between the literal meaning and the social and emotional context. Finally, the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex–our sarcasm meter–makes a decision based on our social and emotional knowledge of the situation.
According to Smithsonian magazine, a study in Israel has college students listen to complaints on a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. According to the study’s authors, sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger.”
So the students who recognized sarcasm had a better developed “theory of mind” – an ability to see beyond the literal meaning of the words, and understand that the speaker may be referring to something entirely different. For example, a theory of mind allows you to realize that when your girlfriend says “nice pants” when you have a giant hole in your crotch, she means just the opposite, that bitch.
As Richard Chin of Smithsonian Magazine explains, sarcasm requires a series of “mental gymnastics.” Sarcastic, satirical or ironic statements all compel the brain to “think beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different.” Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving. Thus, over time, this increased bulk of cognitive expenditure doesn’t go to waste. Chin describes active sarcasm use as a means of “mental exercise.” Just like training your muscles, if you do 50 push-ups a day, over time, your arms are bound to be toned. So sarcasm, as a form of “mental exercise” or “mental gymnastics” functions the same way. Over time, that “extra work” brought forth by sarcasm leaves our brains toned, too.
Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. Other researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism; in fact, the Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.
But that all depends on who you’re talking to. Without sarcasm, what other shield do we have from stupid people?