It might seem counterproductive to spout false statements while working toward the truth. Yet science has revealed that picking up on sarcasm involves more brain activity than sincerity.
Researchers in linguistics, psychology and neuroscience have delved into the process of deciphering the snarky remarks that dominate modern American rhetoric. According to a Smithsonian.com article, sarcasm can enhance creative problem-solving, reduce the harshness of criticism and aid diagnoses of brain disease.
Multiple experiments have shown how insightful studying sarcasm can be. In Israel, college students listened to cellular customers on a customer service line and found that sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” the article said.
University of Calgary psychologists found children could detect sarcasm quickly from as young as 5. Other studies dealt with the signs that those who perceive sarcasm accurately pick up on, such as varying tone or eye movement.
As for its positive effects, sarcasm is only as strong as the person who uses it. The article mentioned that conflicting research found that sarcastic comments were more hurtful than sincere criticism.
Comedian Ricky Gervais gets paid to be sarcastic. Creator of the sarcasm-laden television show “The Office,” Gervais said Americans tend to use sarcasm offensively in a Nov. 9 article he wrote for Time Magazine. In the same story he called comedy an “intellectual pursuit” and not a “platform” to offend.
“We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech,” he said in Time. “We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon … Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.”
However it’s used, sarcasm involves complex brain function not found in regular conversation. It’s the only way that two identical phrases can have completely opposite definitions. Sarcasm might not only induce laughter, but also serve as a fun, recurring mental exercise.