Derived from the Greek word “to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer,” it’s no surprise that sarcasm or the “use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say” is often presented as dark comic relief. Think Dennis Leary, Bill Maher, Tina Fey. Delivered late-night and enjoyed while sitting back with a drink in hand, we often can’t help but laugh at the quips delivered, the unexpected turn of words, and the mocking of the ignorant and ridiculous.
Beyond the cutting edge of sarcasm, however, lies a bright spot. It may actually promote creativity and serve as an indicator of intelligence.
While sarcasm has long been associated with higher-level cognitive thinking, science is just now giving it proper recognition and consideration. One study illustrated the complexity of processing sarcasm using a simple storytelling task. Scientists recruited 17 healthy volunteers and 41 additional subjects suffering from mild brain damage following an illness or accident. Participants listened to 8 prerecorded stories, each one presented twice. One version included a character making a sarcastic comment and the other did not. Researchers then assessed whether participants could identify the sarcasm when present.
Results were striking. The 25 participants with damage to the prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for a variety of complex behaviors including planning, decision-making, and personality expression — did not process the sarcastic remarks as quickly as the others. This study was in line with others showing the need for critical thinking functions, or what some term “mental gymnastics,” in processing sarcasm.
Simply put, sarcasm requires complex thinking.
This work was followed up later by another project that encompassed 4 different studies. In each, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: sarcastic, sincere, or neutral. Then, as part of a simulated conversation, they either expressed something sarcastically or sincerely, received a sarcastic or sincere reply, or remained neutral in their exchange. These exchanges were then followed up with an assessment designed to measure creativity.
Interestingly, several findings emerged. First, expressing and receiving sarcasm was associated with enhanced creativity. Second, the conflict between the people involved was only increased if the other person in the exchange was not a trusted other — so sarcasm between friends may benefit creativity without raising conflict. Finally, sarcasm worked to enhance creativity through its effects on abstract thinking on both the speaker and the listener.
So, that sarcastic remark your friend just uttered? Both you and your friend are getting a cognitive boost from it.
How does this work exactly? It’s believed that the left hemisphere of our brain decodes the literal meaning of a phrase while the right uncovers the implied meaning. That prefrontal cortex mentioned earlier then connects the two, which is why those with an injury to the prefrontal cortex described in the first study presented had such trouble “getting” the sarcasm.
As the authors of this last study stated in The Harvard Gazette, ““Not only did we demonstrate the causal effect of expressing sarcasm on creativity… we also demonstrated, for the first time, the cognitive benefit sarcasm recipients could reap.”
This benefit makes sense given that to either create or decode a sarcastic remark, your brain needs to reconcile the contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the meaning that the speaker intends. This contradiction is one reason why language-processing systems have such difficulty picking up sarcasm in social media (although some are getting close). It’s hard to recognize and takes work. Abstract thinking facilitates this process, which in turn results in increased creative thought.
However, since there is a “relational cost” of sarcasm in the form of conflict, it’s best among friends.
Sarcasm is complicated, and research suggests there might be sub-types of it, some more harsh and others more jocular. Research will continue to uncover how our brains work to create and process sarcasm, but it’s looking as if there are some benefits. So next time you’re listening to a comic dishing out the sarcasm, you can rest assured that your brain is getting a bit of a workout, and you may just come away a little bit brighter in the process.
Featured photo credit: Viktor Hanacek via picjumbo.com