Understanding Jokes  /

Preprint - The role of the Theory of Mind network in understanding jokes

Contributors:
  1. Zuzanna Balewski

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Category: Communication

Description: To communicate successfully, we often go beyond literal meaning: we make sarcastic remarks, ask for favors, and engage in face-saving acts. Do these abilities recruit the same mechanisms as literal interpretation? Or does pragmatic reasoning draw on general social-cognitive abilities? In two fMRI studies (an initial study, and a preregistered self-replication), we examined activity in the language and Theory-of-Mind (ToM) networks while participants processed one-liner jokes. We additionally examined activity in the domain-general “multiple demand” network, which supports executive functions and has also been linked to pragmatic processing. Across both studies, the ToM network responded more strongly to jokes than non-joke controls. The language and multiple demand networks showed weaker responses to the Joke > Non-Joke contrast, evidenced by reliable network-by-condition interactions. Thus ‘getting’ jokes – and perhaps pragmatic processing more broadly – appears to draw most heavily on the same abilities that allow us to imagine what others are thinking.

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