Sometimes Puns Are a Sign of a Damaged Brain

By
Photo: SuperStock/Getty Images

And now, a joke for you:

Q: What did the proctologist say to his therapist?

A: All day long I am dealing with assholes.

A little distasteful, yes. A little overly punny and dad joke-y, definitely yes. But the joke-teller also happens to be the subject of a case report written by two neurologists, and published recently in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, in which he is diagnosed with Witzelsucht – pathological joking.

The problem: By the time the man, who was 69, went to see a neurologist, he had a “5-year history of compulsive joking,” the neurologists write in their paper, which was recently covered by the Discover blog Neuroskeptic. “On interview, the patient reported feeling generally joyful, but his compulsive need to make jokes and create humor had become an issue of contention with his wife,” they write. He would routinely wake his wife up in the middle of the night, “just to tell her about the jokes he had come up with.” After some time, his wife suggested writing those jokes down instead of waking her. “As a result, he brought to our office approximately 50 pages filled with his jokes.”

Here are a few more gems, as reported by the BBC’s David Robson:

Q: How do you cure hunger?
A: Step away from the buffet table.

And then there’s this. I don’t actually know what’s going on here:

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?

The diagnosis: The man was diagnosed with Witzelsucht, which literally translates from German to “joke addiction.” Upon examination, the neurologists found evidence of brain damage to his left caudate nucleus and his right frontal cortex. The former was apparently caused by a stroke, and was likely unrelated to his constant joking. But the latter, the physicians believe, was likely caused by a subarachnoid hemorrhage – that is, bleeding between the brain and the soft tissues that surround it, often caused by an aneurysm. The right frontal lobe is associated with humor appreciation, and damage to the frontal lobe has been observed in other cases of Witzelsucht.

Though Witzelsucht patients find their own jokes hilarious, they often don’t much care for the jokes of others, Robson reports, which may help explain the underlying neurology here. In some cases, compulsive joking seems to be an early sign of dementia — more specifically, frontotemporal dementia, which often changes the way a person empathizes with others. A person with frontotemporal dementia, for example, may have “a lack of understanding or indifference to other people’s feelings — (e.g., hurtful comments, disregard for other people’s pain, making jokes at a funeral).” All of which makes Witzelsucht sound like — please forgive the pun —no joke.