In the cognitive sciences, the capacity to interpret the intentions of others is called “Theory of Mind” (ToM). This faculty is involved in the understanding of language, in particular by bridging the gap between the meaning of the words that make up a statement and the meaning of the statement as a whole.
Today, researchers at L2C2 have established, for the first time, the link between this neural network and the processing of implicit meanings. To identify this link, the team focused their attention on irony. An ironic statement usually means the opposite of what is said. In order to detect irony in a statement, the mechanisms of ToM must be brought into play. In their experiment, the researchers prepared 20 short narratives in two versions, one literal and one ironic. Each story contained a key sentence that, depending on the version, yielded an ironic or literal meaning.
The participants were not aware that the test concerned the perception of irony. The researchers had predicted that the participants’ ToM neural networks would show increased activity in reaction to the ironic sentences, and that was precisely what they observed: as each key sentence was read, the network activity was greater when the statement was ironic. This shows that this network is directly involved in the processes of understanding irony, and, more generally, in the comprehension of language.