In Some Rare Instances, Brain Damage Can Lead to Joke Addiction

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It’s generally a good thing to have a sense of humor. But for some people, joking can become a compulsion.

In two case studies by a pair of UCLA brain researchers recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, the subjects' brain trauma and dementia led to what the scientists describe as “intractable joking.” Called Witzelsucht (German for "joke addiction"), excessive joking is a real neurological disease. Coming up with puns is pathological.

For five years, one man, an anonymous 69-year-old, would wake his wife up in the middle of the night to tell her jokes he’d come up with. When she complained, he wrote them down instead—accumulating 50 pages of puns and poop jokes that he later revealed to the researchers.

Ten years before he visited the lab, this man suffered a brain hemorrhage that changed his behavior. He became compulsive, particularly about recycling. He would dig through dumpsters to try to find recyclables, and hoard napkins from restaurants. Five years after the episode, his compulsion turned toward comedy. In what was later attributed to a stroke, he became so obsessed with making jokes and puns that it began to wear on his relationship with his wife. He laughed incessantly at his own jokes, yet he struggled to find other people’s jokes funny. On a multiple choice test in the lab, he could identify the punch lines of jokes, but didn’t laugh or find them funny. But his own quips—like “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table!”—he couldn’t stop giggling at.

In the second case studied, a 57-year-old with dementia got fired from his job for his inability to quash his jokester persona. He was let go after he blurted “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” at work. He “would frequently break out in laughter, almost cackling, at his own comments, opinions, or jokes, many of which were borderline sexual or political in content,” the researchers describe. He disco-danced during one visit to the clinic to meet with the researchers, grabbing the ties of passing physicians and comparing them on another visit. Like the aforementioned pun-lover, though, he didn’t find other people’s jesting amusing. His sense of humor was entirely personal. When he died, the man’s autopsy showed that he had Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, that resulted in severe atrophy of the frontal lobes of his brain.

These men did not die of laughter, and it sounds like their friends and family were excessively patient with them. Still, joke addiction is serious business. Figuring out the brain issues that lead to this compulsive jesting and merriment can help us understand how the brain processes humor—a particularly human behavior psychologists and other researchers still don’t entirely understand. Both the cases above represented patients with frontal lesions from brain trauma and neurodegenerative disease. The frontal regions of the brain, especially on the right side of the brain, seem to play a major role in our ability to see the humor in the world, and get other people’s jokes. People with lesions on the right frontal lobe of their brain still respond to silly puns and slapstick, but can’t appreciate more complicated jokes or those that are new to them (as in, told by someone else). And with the damage to the parts of the brain involved in self-control, these people lose the ability to stop themselves from making that terrible pun.

Next, perhaps researchers will discover the neurological root of Dad Jokes.

[h/t BBC]