Context, choice of words and tone of voice help us realize when someone's talking sarcastically. If you've just been telling your friends about your nephew's dismal academic record and then say, "So I'm sure he'll do great at college!" they'll work out from the context that you're being sarcastic. Exaggeration and understatement are often used, too. For example, when you say "Aunt Prunella sent me this gorgeous pink and green paisley tie," the word "gorgeous" would be stressed (and probably accompanied by a clearly false smile); the stressed word may also be drawn out for effect: "goooorgeous."
For most people, picking up on sarcasm is something we learn through socialization. As kids, we might fall prey to a few sarcastic comments by taking them literally, but we soon learn the hallmarks of sarcasm and the delivery. Once that lesson sticks, we'll likely be able to spot that stinging insincerity for the rest of our lives; our brains have been trained to detect sarcasm.
Here's how it gets processed: After a sarcastic comment is made, different portions of our brain weigh the literal meaning of the statement against its social context. Then the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex determines its final meaning [source: Medical News Today]. Among other processes, this is part of the brain that helps us understand language and complex social interactions. And really, there's no better example of these two forces at work than sarcasm: where what we mean is actually the opposite of what we say.
So it's no surprise researchers found that people with damaged prefrontal lobes have a harder time detecting sarcasm. Other scientists have determined that people with neourodegenerative diseases -- such as dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases that deteriorate neurons in the brain -- have a harder time detecting sarcasm as well as other forms of insincerity and lies [source: UCSF]. They suggest that this inability might be an early indicator of potentially bigger problems. So don't get too upset when you ask your son to do the laundry, and he comes back with "Sure, I love doing household chores." The fact that you can sense his 'tude means your brain is in tip-top form.
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