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This Is Your Brain on Irony

A team of French researchers have examined how the brain works when a listener grasps an ironic comment, discovering that essential regions of the brain help us to interpret language.

What’s the Latest Development?

A team of French researchers have recently isolated which parts of the brain are active when a person grasps an ironic comment, which requires the listener to understand language in an illiteral way. To do this, researchers gave two groups of people two different short stories, one in which an opera singer’s comment, “Tonight we gave a superb performance,” had to be understood ironically given its context. When readers grasped that the remark was ironic, because in fact a bad performance had been given, what are called ToM-related regions of the brain were visibly active in subjects’ MRI scans. 

What’s the Big Idea?

ToM stands for “theory of mind” and represents regions of the brain that are active when we imagine what another person is thinking. Our ability to project thoughts onto other humans, and decide if someone is threatening us or deserving of our sympathy, has been essential to our development in evolutionary terms. “It makes sense that parts of the brain involved in theorizing about other people’s minds would be involved in grasping irony. After all, detecting irony means departing sharply from the literal meaning of a sentence, something it’s hard to do without having a ‘theory’ about the intent behind the sentence.”

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