Tuesday, May 24, 2005


So, this week's post offers a slightly different look at language. Different in that it involves biological rather than language science - or rather, that it connects the two in fascinating ways. Know that experience of making a sarcastic comment, and the other person not realising and taking you literally? (Or the other way round, as is more often the case for me....) Well, in considering the social dynamics of that language situation, we are firmly into the business of examining the pragmatic encoding of attitudes between the participants in the exchange. We expect the other person to be able to decode the signs, and if they don't, we might take them to be autistic, or we might think they are wilfully picking a fight. Either way, we know there is something not quite right.

Well, some scientists have now investigated what goes on in the brain when decoding of the pragmatic signals associated with sarcasm and irony should be taking place. And it turns out it's all to do with the state of your prefrontal lobe. Damage that and your right ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and your ability to detect sarcasm is drastically reduced. Interesting for those of you interested in speech therapy or medicine as a future career; also interesting in helping us to see that our language production isn't just a consequence of social contextual factors, but also of complex biological processes too. The complexity of what we do every time we open our mouths never fails to amaze me.

Check it out.

Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit

The human brain


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