“Using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists seem to have located a part of the brain centrally involved in grasping irony.
“We demonstrate that the ToM network becomes active while a participant is understanding verbal irony.”
This isn’t just one of those “shot in the dark” MRI studies, where you see what brain regions happen to light up when people engage in a particular mental activity. The ToM network has been the focus of previous work on irony apprehension, and enough is known about it to give us some ideas about the particular role it could play in that apprehension.
Here’s how the experiment worked. The researchers prepared short written stories, and each story came in two versions. Both versions contained a sentence that could be read either literally or ironically, with the correct reading depending on how the context had been set earlier in the story. In one story, for example, one opera singer says to another, “Tonight we gave a superb performance,” and whether the sentence is ironic or literal depends on whether the performance had been described earlier in the story as a failure or as a success. The researchers had correctly predicted that the ToM network would show more activity when the sentence, read in context, was ironic than when it was literal.”
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