Neural evidence that utterance-processing entails mentalizing: The case of irony

,  Koun E., Prado J., Van Der Henst J.B., Noveck I. NeuroImage, 63(1), pp. 25-39 - 2012


Neuroimage 63

It is now well established that communicators interpret others’ mental states through what has been called “Theory of Mind” (ToM). From a linguistic-pragmatics perspective, this mentalizing ability is considered critical because it is assumed that the linguistic code in all utterances underdetermines the speaker’s meaning, leaving a vital role for ToM to fill the gap. From a neuroscience perspective, understanding others’ intentions has been shown to activate a neural ToM network that includes the right and left temporal parietal junction (rTPJ, lTPJ), the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the precuneus (PC). Surprisingly, however, there are no studies – to our knowledge – that aim to uncover a direct, on-line link between language processing and ToM through neuroimaging. This is why we focus on verbal irony, an obviously pragmatic phenomenon that compels a listener to detect the speaker’s (dissociated, mocking) attitude (Wilson, 2009). In the present fMRI investigation, we compare participants’ comprehension of 18 target sentences as contexts make them either ironic or literal. Consider an opera singer who tells her interlocutor: “Tonight we gave a superb performance!” when the performance in question was clearly awful (making the statement ironic) or very good (making the statement literal). We demonstrate that the ToM network becomes activewhile a participant is understanding verbal irony. Moreover, we demonstrate – through Psychophysiological Interactions (PPI) analyses – that ToM activity is directly linked with language comprehension processes. The paradigm, its predictions, and the reported results contrast dramatically with those from seven prior fMRI studies on irony.

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