Friday, 07 October 2005

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The Neurobiology of Sarcasm Appropos of nothing, this evening I want to discuss an article from the May 2005 issue of the journal Neuropsychology. Shamay-Tsoory, Tomer and Aharon-Peretz's "The Neuroanatomical Basis of Undestanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition" posits that the ability to understand and produce sarcasm emerge the ventromedial (VM) regions of the frontal lobes. To prove their thesis, the Israeli neuropsychologists lassoed "patients with well-defined, localized, acquired cortical legions" and subjected them to a battery of tests requiring them to identify sarcastic utterances. These patients were presented with the following stories: Sarcastic Version Item Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard!" Neurtral Version Item Joe came to work and immediately began to work. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard!" The patients were then asked a factual question ("Did Joe work too hard?") and an attitude question ("Did the manager believe Joe was working hard?"). If the subject answered the factual question correctly and the attitude question incorrectly, the research team would shake their heads, bite their pencils and note with great regret the subject's executive dysfunctions. Then they did math: Significant differences were found between the PFC, PC, and HC groups, χ2(2, N = 58) = 9.212, p <.01; between the PFC and PC groups, χ2(1, N = 41) = 4.533, p <.033; and between the PFC and HC groups, χ2(2, N = 42) = 7.135, p <.008; but not between the PC and the HC groups, χ2(1, N = 33) = 0.313, ns. I don't know what that means, but because they knew I wouldn't be suitably impressed by one paragraph full of numbers and formulae, they decided they best provide another: The differences between groups was reconfirmed by means of the Kruskal-Wallis H, χ2(5, N = 58) = 15.481, p <.008. Analysis of error frequencies using chi-square indicated significant differences between all groups, χ2(5, N = 58) = 13.709, p <.018. In addition, the right prefrontal lesion group was significantly different from the HCs, χ2(1, N = 23) = 10.729, p <.001; right posterior group, χ2(1, N = 13) = 3.899, p <.048; and left posterior group, χ2(1, N = 15) = 7.824, p <.005, but not from the bilateral frontal group, χ2(1, N = 19) = 2.328, ns. The bilateral PFC patients were significantly different from the HCs, χ2(1, N = 30) = 4.455, p <.053. I know what that means however. It signifies they knew I knew the means and standard deviations were as follows: VM = 1.45 (SD = 1.4); DL = 0.857 (SD = 1.86); MIX = 1.42 (SD = 1.9); PC = 0.19 (SD = 0.4); and HCs = 0.11 (SD = 0.33). They only wanted to be sure that I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew. Because they're thorough. After all the complicated math and arcane analysis of the one-tailed partial correlation...
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Sample Thoughts From A Deaf Man's Mind, 7 October 2005 Overheard while walking from my office to the 4' x 5' dorm room which—having lately vacated my parents' Houston basement—I share with four cats, one lovely wife and a library of over 9,000 books: "So she gave a press conference from her bedroom and she said all about how Henry had left her for an older woman with three adopted kids and tons of puppies who she didn't even know. Someday soon we'll all be doing that." I suspect this is one of those moments when the 75% of stuff my poor punctured eardrums don't deliver brain-wards contain some significant phonemes, ones whose absence garble words and sentences beyond cognizability. Even if I'm wrong, I doubt the day will come when we'll all have husbands named Henry leaving us for older women with many children and tons of puppies. Of all the grammatical tics in that sentence, I find "tons of puppies" the most amusing. Of course, I also find the fact that woman who gave the press conference from her bedroom wasn't acquainted with any of the puppies. There were tons of them. Surely she had happened on the street one day last December to notice one or two of the three or four thousand puppies eventually purchased by her husband's mistress in a Christmas display downtown? But maybe I have it all backwards. Maybe we live in a world where all wronged wives will now give press conferences from the bedrooms their husbands no longer occupy, as if to say "This, right here, this is what he has abandoned. This chest of drawers proudly bore his socks and underwear for more than a decade .... this nightstand, the fantasy novels whose covers he declaimed but whose contents he devoured .... this coat hanger, the tuxedo he wore on our wedding day." They would continue until thier connection timed out or the moment they could somehow tell they no longer had an audience. But later: "On this recliner he read the latest Sports Illustrated or Golf Digest. Now he'll find some new recliner, with his new wife, his new children, his new puppies. I will be here, alone, in my bedroom, broadcasting hourly news conferences, constantly updating you, my dear, dear viewers, on the state of my despair."

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