June 1, 2005 —Are you the cynical, sarcastic type? Scientists are on to you.
A recent series of studies has gone beyond asking basic questions about the brain, such as how we speak or tell our limbs to move, and is probing more complex areas of cognition. Some researchers now want to know how we understand metaphors, why we "get" sarcasm (or don't), and how soon we become cynical.
A healthy cynic might ask, why spend the time and money to understand all these things in the first place? Besides shedding light on certain diseases, researchers claim it's necessary to understand all functions of the brain — basic and obscure — to get a full sense of how our minds work.
"Even though linguists may not study these things, they make up a large part of what it means to be human," said V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego.
Among the traits thought to be uniquely human is our capacity to be cynical.
Candice Mills, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University, recently surveyed Connecticut schoolchildren ages 6 to 12 to find out how early they learned to process information with a grain of salt.
"We tend to think of children as being extremely gullible — that they believe everything they hear," said Mills who recently earned her doctorate at Yale. "We wanted to see how true that was."
True to predictions, children younger than 8 years old in the survey proved to be fairly gullible. But, to their surprise, 8- to 12-year-olds turned out to be a very cynical bunch.
When told stories about competitors running or swimming in a close race and then saying they had won, the children were asked if they thought the characters were lying. Those between 8 and 12 years old doubted the competitors had actually won the race. What's more, when asked why characters might say they had won if they hadn't, the children didn't cut the characters any slack — they said the characters were flat-out lying.
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"Adults may explain it by saying a person wanted to win so much they skewed the way they saw the outcome, children don't talk about bias," said Mills. "They think about people as either lying or telling the truth. It's more black and white and, in some ways, a harsher way of thinking."
Mills says the information is useful, particularly in U.S. society where children can be inundated with all kinds of information from television, friends and movies.
"Given that children are exposed to so much, it's good to know when they may be more cynical," she said, pointing out that the study demonstrates how cynicism a key part of human behavior.
Another researcher, Simone Shamay-Tsoory, sees sarcasm as a uniquely human form of expression and her research has shown that processing irony requires a complex network of brain processing.
For example, to grasp the fact that a person may not really mean it when he says, "Don't work too hard!" to someone who is sleeping at his desk, Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues at the University of Haifa in Israel, showed that we use an involved series of neural networks.
The process goes something like this: First, language processors in the left side of the brain interpret the literal meaning of the phrase, then the frontal lobes and right hemisphere of the brain interpret the intentional, social and emotional context of the situation.
Finally, an area of the brain known as the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional context of the situation. Put it all together and you've grasped sarcasm. But not everyone always gets it.
The Israeli team traced this process by studying people who had lesions in each of these regions of the brain and then seeing which part of a sarcastic remark they had trouble interpreting.
"The frontal lobes act together with the right hemisphere that interprets emotions," said Shamay-Tsoory. "This is one example of how a brain lesion can impair important faculties in the brain."
Just as irony is lost on other animals (and some people with lesions or other neural disorders), so are metaphors. How, for example, do we grasp the meaning of "the grass is always greener" or a "rolling stone gathers no moss"?
Ramachandran at the University of California at San Diego found that we can thank a part of our brain called the left angular gyrus — a region that is disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates.
Ramachandran studied patients with lesions in this region of the brain and found they had a very hard time explaining the meaning of 20 common metaphors.
One patient, a former physician, could maintain a normal conversation and even correct medical diagnoses but was flummoxed when asked to explain the meaning of "all that glitters is not gold."
His best guess, said Ramachandran, was that it meant you had to be very careful when buying jewelry because you might get robbed. While the patients could come up with literal meanings for such phrases, figurative meanings escaped them.
Studying how people are able to interpret metaphors may seem like an obscure topic of research, but just as tracing our capability to be cynical and sarcastic may shed light on human behavior, Ramachandran claims it's an important part of understanding "quintessentially human abilities."
"Eventually it will help us understand ourselves," he said, "and that's more important than anything else, isn't it?"