Sarcasm Increases Creativity

Broca's Area, named after the 19th Century physician Pierre Paul Broca, is a region in the left hemisphere of the brain that is heavily implicated in speech. Indeed, for much of the last 100 years people have referred to this region as being the 'speech centre of the brain'. While its importance in speech is unquestionable, more recently it has been realised that speech, or more precisely, the conveying of meaning through language, is more complex than was originally thought.

For example, it is not uncommon for people who struggle with speech due to left-hemispheric stroke to retain the ability to both sing songs and to swear. As revealed by fMRI scanning techniques, the reason for this anomaly appears to be that brain regions other than Broca's Area are involved in those activities*.

It should not come as a surprise therefore that neuroscientists have recently discovered that sarcasm also emanates from a separate brain region**. In a 2015 a team of neuroscientists studied a group of 24 people, all of whom had suffered had suffered white matter damage after a stroke. Where the stroke damage occurred is a specific region of the right hemisphere known as the sagittal stratum, those people struggled to determine whether a person was being sarcastic or not based on the tone of their voice. Interestingly though, the sagittal stratum is not so much a brain region as a bundle of fibres that relay information between two grey matter structures, the thalamus and the cerebral cortex. The findings would therefore suggest that sarcasm does not so much have a 'centre' of its own, but that it rather relies on the interaction of a number of brain regions.

Further evidence of this regional interconnectedness is provided by another study that looked at the associations between sarcasm and creativity***. In a study involving more than 300 men and women, people were exposed to sarcastic or sincere comment and then faced with a psychological test involving creativity. One of these was the famous Duncker's candle problem, where the subject is provided with a candle, some matches and a box of thumb tacks and asked to find a means of attaching the candle to the wall in such a way that the wax will not drip on the floor. The solution is to realise that the box holding the thumb tacks is also part of the inventory and can be attached to the wall to act as a tray.

Duncker's candle problem

The results were that 75% of the people who had been the butt of sarcastic comments came up with the right solution, compared with only 25% of the people who had been exposed to sincere comments. Some 64% per cent of those who made sarcastic comments were correct too, compared with 30 per cent of a control group.

It is believed that the reason for the association between sarcasm and creativity is that understanding sarcasm requires both the right and left hemispheres of the brain to engage. For example, the left hemisphere interprets the words while the right hemisphere interprets the tonality and context that implies the contradictory meaning.

The implication is that activities that cause both hemisphere of the brain to interact aids creativity. Strange then that in a world where creativity in business is in short supply, we still place such great emphasis on the routinization of processes and tasks that rely exclusively on the left hemisphere.

* 'Swearing and the Brain.' Juliette Siegfried,

** 'White matter tracts critical for recognition of sarcasm.' Davis CL, Oishi K, Faria AV, Hsu J, Gomez Y, Mori S, Hillis AE. Neurocase Mar 2015

*** 'The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients.' Li Huanga, Francesca Ginob, Adam D. Galinskyc. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 2015

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