New discoveries about how the brain works always seem to be fascinating, and the one I just read about today is no exception.
Witzelsucht (from the German witzeln, meaning to joke or wisecrack, and sucht, meaning addiction or yearning) is a set of rare neurological symptoms characterized by a tendency to make puns, or tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. Patients do not understand that their behavior is abnormal, therefore are nonresponsive to others’ reactions. This disorder is most commonly seen in patients with frontal lobe damage, particularly right frontal lobe tumors or trauma.
The BBC web site had a story last week about a woman whose husband would wake her up from sleep to tell her another witty remark that had just come to him. In a bid to finally get a good night’s rest, she eventually persuaded him to write them down rather than telling her directly.
He ended up filling over 50 pages; here are a couple of the jokes he wrote down:
Went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s license. They gave me an eye exam and here is what they said: ABCDEFG, HIJKMNLOP, QRS, TUV, WXY and Z; now I know my ABC’s, can I have my license please?
How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table.
The husband would erupt in fits of laughter at these small quips, but his wife, after having listened to such jokes nonstop for over five years, found it difficult to deal with. She was also concerned about other strange behavior of his, such as shop-lifting candy from their local stores and so she arranged to visit a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“He constantly cracked jokes during the interview, to the point of being difficult to interrupt,” recalls the neurologist, whose report can be found in a recent neuroscience journal.
The husband was diagnosed with Witzelsucht, brought on, it seems, by two strokes, five years apart.
One of the first noted cases of this pathological joking was by a German neurologist in 1929. Since then, many other cases have been noted.
Strangely, many of the patients fail to respond to other people’s jokes, despite apparently finding themselves absolutely hilarious.
The BBC story relates what some researchers consider to one of the funniest jokes of all time:
Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’
Some people may have trouble identifying the humor in such a joke as a result of neurodegenerative conditions. The findings associated with studying such individuals could be important in predicting the onset and progression of such diseases. Doctors should take notice if a patient’s families have noticed a changed sense of humor – since it’s often the first cue that something is amiss. Such changes were sometimes reported by caregivers up to nine years before the diagnosis.
I realize that Witzelsucht is a serious medical issue, and it is great to see that research is being done on the condition. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that there is potentially some untapped talent that these people possess that could prove beneficial.
I’m always impressed when I hear a good pun, and here’s one person’s compilation of the ten best puns.
So perhaps if the Witzelsucht patients can learn ways to manage their condition, they could make great stand-up comedians, and that would be no laughing matter.