Though it is normally a good thing to have a sense of humor, some people might take joking to a new level, making it a compulsion. Two recent case studies published by a pair of UCLA brain researchers in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, show that brain damage and dementia led to “intractable joking”. This excessive joking (Witzelsucht in German) is a real neurological disease.
The first case study is about an anonymous man who was 69-years-old, and would wake up his wife in the middle of the night for five years to tell her jokes he’d come up with. He later visited a lab and it was discovered than ten years before, the man suffered a brain hemorrhage that changes his behavior: he became compulsive, obsessed with recycling. Five years later, his compulsion turned into comedy, and he became obsessed with making jokes and puns. Testing in the lab proved that, even if he could understand other people’s jokes, he didn’t find them funny. This was only the case with his own jokes.
The second case study is based on a57-year-old with dementia, who got fired because he was too much of a joker. The researchers say that 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.” Just like the man in the first case, he only found his jokes funny. After his death, the autopsy confirmed that he had Pick’s disease, which is a form of dementia that results in severe atrophy of the frontal lobes in his brain.
Joke addiction is a serious issue, and figuring out what brain problems cause it can help us better understand how the brain processes humor. Both of the cases above presented patients with frontal lesions due to brain trauma and neurodegenerative disease. Which comes to show that the frontal regions of our brain – especially the right one – seem to play a major role in our ability to perceive humor and other people’s jokes. People who have lessions on their right frontal lobe can still perceive silly puns and slapstick, but they cannot understand more complicated ones. And because of the damage to the parts of the brain which are responsible for self-control, these people lose the ability to stop themselves from making puns.