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Joking Aside, Sarcasm May Enhance Creativity

Joking Aside, Sarcasm May Enhance Creativity

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Last Updated on July 3, 2020

30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

In today’s world, true peace must come from within us and our own actions. Here are 30 small things you can do on a regular basis to increase your overall sense of harmony, peace, and well-being:

1. Don’t go to every fight you’re invited to

Particularly when you’re around those who thrive on chaos, be willing to decline the invitation to join in on the drama.

2. Focus on your breath

Throughout the day, stop to take a few deep breaths. Keep stress at bay with techniques such as “square breathing.” Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then out for four counts, and hold again for four counts. Repeat this cycle four times.

3. Get organized and purge old items

A cluttered space often creates a cluttered spirit. Take the time to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a year and invest in organizational systems that help you sustain a level of neatness.

4. Stop yourself from being judgmental

Whenever you are tempted to have an opinion about someone else’s life, check your intentions. Judging others creates and promotes negative energy.

5. Say ‘thank you’ early and often

Start and end each day with an attitude of gratitude. Look for opportunities in your daily routine and interactions to express appreciation.

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6. Smile more

Even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” there are many scientific benefits of smiling and laughing. Also, pay attention to your facial expression when you are doing neutral activities such as driving and walking. Turn that frown upside down!

7. Don’t worry about the future

As difficult as this sounds, there is a direct connection between staying in the present and living a more peaceful life. You cannot control the future. As the old proverb goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” Practice gently bringing your thoughts back to the present.

8. Eat real food

The closer the food is to the state from which it came from the earth, the better you will feel in eating it. Choose foods that grew from a plant over food that was made in a plant.

9. Choose being happy over being right

Too often, we sacrifice inner peace in order to make a point. It’s rarely worth it.

10. Keep technology out of the bedroom

Many studies, such as one conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have connected blue light of electronic devices before bed to adverse sleep and overall health. To make matters worse, many people report that they cannot resist checking email and social media when their cell phone is in reach of their bed, regardless of the time.

11. Make use of filtering features on social media

You may not want to “unfriend” someone completely, however you can choose whether you want to follow their posts and/or the sources of information that they share.

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12. Get comfortable with silence

When you picture someone who is the ultimate state of peace, typically they aren’t talking.

13. Listen to understand, not to respond

So often in conversations, we use our ears to give us cues about when it is our turn to say what we want to say. Practice active listening, ask questions, process, then speak.

14. Put your troubles in a bubble

Whenever you start to feel anxious, visualize the situation being wrapped in a bubble and then picture that sphere floating away.

15. Speak more slowly

Often a lack of peace manifests itself in fast or clipped speech. Take a breath, slow down, and let your thoughtful consideration drive your words.

16. Don’t procrastinate

Nothing adds stress to our lives like waiting until the last minute.

17. Buy a coloring book

Mandala coloring books for adults are becoming more popular because of their connection to creating inner peace.

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18. Prioritize yourself

You are the only person who you are guaranteed to live with 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

19. Forgive others

Holding a grudge is hurting you exponentially more than anyone else. Let it go.

20. Check your expectations

Presumption often leads to drama. Remember the old saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

21. Engage in active play

Let your inner child come out and have some fun. Jump, dance, play, and pretend!

22. Stop criticizing yourself

The world is a hard enough place with more than enough critics. Your life is not served well by being one of them.

23. Focus your energy and attention on what you want

Thoughts, words, and actions all create energy. Energy attracts like energy. Put out what you want to get back.

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24. Assign yourself “complaint free” days.

Make a conscious decision not to complain about anything for a whole day. It might be harder than you think and the awareness will stick with you.

25. Surround yourself with people you truly enjoy being in the company of

Personalities tend to be contagious, and not everyone’s is worth catching. Be judicious in your choices.

26. Manage your money

Financial concerns rank top on the list of what causes people stress. Take the time each month to do a budget, calculate what you actually spend and sanity check that against the money you have coming in.

27. Stop trying to control everything

Not only is your inner control freak sabotaging your sense of peace, it is also likely getting in the way of external relationships as well.

28. Practice affirmations

Repeat positive phrases that depict the life and qualities you want to attract. It may not come naturally to you, but it works.

29. Get up before sunrise

Personally witnessing the dawn brings a unique sense of awe and appreciation for life.

30. Be yourself

Nothing creates more inner discord than trying to be something other than who we really are. Authenticity breeds happiness.

Featured photo credit: man watching sunrise via stokpic.com

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