In a new paper, neurologists Elias D. Granadillo and Mario F. Mendez describe two patients in whom brain disorders led to an unusual symptom: “intractable joking.”
Patient #1 was
A 69-year-old right-handed man presented for a neuropsychiatric evaluation because of a 5-year history of compulsive joking… 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. He would wake her up in the middle of the night bursting out in laughter, just to tell her about the jokes he had come up with. At the request of his wife, he started writing down these jokes as a way to avoid waking her. As a result, he brought to our office approximately 50 pages filled with his jokes.
Granadillo and Mendez quote some of the patient’s gags:
Q: What is a pill-popping sexual molester guilty of? A: Rape and pillage. Q: What did the proctologist say to his therapist? A: All day long I am dealing with assholes.
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 man’s comedic compulsion was attributed to a stroke, which had damaged part of his left caudate nucleus, although an earlier lesion to the right frontal cortex, caused by a subarachnoid hemorrhage, may have contributed to the pathological punning. Granadillo and Mendez say that a series of medications, including antidepressants, had little impact on his “compulsive need to constantly make and tell jokes.”
Patient #2 was a 57-year old man, who had become “a jokester”, a transformation that had occurred gradually, over a three period. At the same time, the man became excessively forward and disinhibited, making inappropriate actions and remarks. He eventually lost his job after asking “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?”
The patient constantly told jokes and couldn’t stop laughing at them. However, he did not seem to find other people’s jokes funny at all.
The man’s case, however, came to a sad end. His behavior continued to deteriorate and he developed symptoms of Parkinson’s. He died several years later. The diagnosis was Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia. A post mortem revealed widespread neurodegeneration: “frontotemporal atrophy, severe in the frontal lobes and moderate in the temporal lobes, affecting the right side more than the left” was noted.
The authors say that both of these patients displayed Witzelsucht, a German term literally meaning ‘joke addiction’. Several cases have been reported in the neurological literature, often associated with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. Witzelsucht should be distinguished from ‘pathological laughter‘, in which patients start laughing ‘out of the blue’ and the laughter is incongruent with their “mood and emotional experience.” In Witzelsucht, the laughter is genuine: patients really do find their own jokes funny, although they often fail to appreciate those of others.
Granadillo ED, & Mendez MF (2016). Pathological Joking or Witzelsucht Revisited. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences PMID: 26900737