Brain Damage and Journalism

Dan Hurley writes of Katherine P. Rankin’s neurological research on sarcasm,

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

That’s from a New York Times piece, “The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care),” 3 June 2008. The abstract for Rankin et al.‘s presentation says, in part,

This study provides lesion data suggesting that the right posterior temporal lobe and dorsomedial frontal cortex are associated with recognizing and interpreting sarcastic irony using paralinguistic vocal and facial cues, consistent with functional imaging research examining neural correlates of voice prosody, facial emotion recognition, and perspective taking.

Trust the alchemy of science journalism to turn a result consistent with prior research into a great surprise. As Vaughan Bell points out, by the early 1980s people had already found out that damage to the brain’s right hemisphere can cause “disorders of affective language,” i.e., problems with recognizing emotion in speech. More recently, Shamay-Tsoory et al. (2005) found that lesions in the ventromedial section of the right prefrontal cortex impaired test subjects’ abilities to handle tasks which required understanding sarcasm.

This is the sort of gaffe which makes neurocurmudgeons file a story under “chaff” instead of “wheat.” I wonder: can fMRI detect a cortical lesion which makes all interesting and worthwhile research be perceived as revolutionary? The problem is not just restricted to neuro-journalism, of course — revolution disease is a general trope, right up there with “Think of the children!” and “David vs. the Scientific Goliath.” One begins to appreciate why Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age (2008), said of his research practices, “I wanted to avoid secondary literature, media,” even though this meant a masochistic journey through peer-reviewed articles.

As for the research itself. . . . To my knowledge (and that of the Neurocritic), Rankin et al.‘s results have not yet appeared in a journal, only at an American Academy of Neurology conference, so pickings are as yet rather thin. No doubt more details will be available anon.

3 thoughts on “Brain Damage and Journalism”

  1. Have you seen the story “The Reality Tests” in the latest Seed?

    A team of physicists in Vienna has devised experiments that may answer one of the enduring riddles of science: Do we create the world just by looking at it?

    This is not “chaff” by a long shot, but why does it always have to be about “seeing” and “looking”? Because “your ass is too coarse a measuring device to detect the quantum nature of the couch you are sitting on” doesn’t sound mystical enough?

  2. Ha.

    That article was much better than it could have been; I’m not privy to any gossip about the life stories of the physicists involved, but the physics itself was not described horribly. It could have been significantly improved by jettisoning faux profundity, though.

    I’ve come to realize that I loathe the term “reality” in this context — if there’s nothing underlying quantum mechanics, than that is reality, even if it fails to match your preconceptions based on your limited classical intuition. That’s like saying special relativity undermines “realism” because it means whether a quantity shows up as energy or momentum, electric field or magnetic field, space or time depends on who’s measuring.

    “Create the world just by looking at it” is also a pretty shoddy description. I’m having a hard time getting that idea out of Kofler and Brukner (2007), for example. A better description would be, “We’re not privy to all aspects of physical reality because our observations are the ass planted on the sofa of the Cosmos.”

  3. Blake, I hereby challenge you to write an article entitled “Our observations are the ass planted on the sofa of the Cosmos.” That would be awesome beyond words.

    As for this media treating everything as NEW! ASTOUNDING! A REVELATION! bs, well, it’s what they have to do to get the uncaring ass of Joe Blow off the sofa and reading the science. If there’s not some “Never before seen!” hook, too many people pass it up.

    I’m going to end up writing a novel in your comments section. I can’t let myself do that – I have two (count them, two!) PZ Myers lectures to go write up.

Comments are closed.