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In an episode of "The Simpsons," Professor Frink, left, demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector. (©2003 THE SIMPSONS and TTCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED FOX)

The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right

How do humans separate sarcasm from sincerity? Research on the subject is leading to insights about how the mind works. Really

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(Continued from page 2)

Another experiment that analyzed sarcasm in American TV sitcoms asserted that there’s a “blank face” version of sarcasm delivery.

Despite all these clues, detecting sarcasm can be difficult. There are a lot of things that can cause our sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding. Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, for example, recently found that people with frontotemporal dementia have difficulty detecting sarcasm. Neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin has suggested that a loss of the ability to pick up on sarcasm could be used as an early warning sign to help diagnose the disease. “If someone who has the sensitivity loses it, that’s a bad sign,” Rankin says. “If you suddenly think Stephen Colbert is truly right wing, that’s when I would worry.”

Many parts of the brain are involved in processing sarcasm, according to recent brain imaging studies. Rankin has found that the temporal lobes and the parahippocampus are involved in picking up the sarcastic tone of voice. While the left hemisphere of the brain seems to be responsible for interpreting literal statements, the right hemisphere and both frontal lobes seem to be involved in figuring out when the literal statement is intended to mean exactly the opposite, according to a study by researchers at the University of Haifa.

Or you could just get a sarcasm detection device. It turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer scientists in Jerusalem developed their “Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification.” The program was able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review. The scientists say that a computer that could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of summarizing user opinions in product reviews.

The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that their “automatic sarcasm recognizer,” a set of computer algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of “yeah, right” in recorded telephone conversations more than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.”

Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah, right.

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